24 September 2007

DNA Database Debate

The forensic use of bioinformation: ethical issuesAt the start of the month, Lord Justice Sedley described the national DNA database as indefensible, unfair and inconsistent and called for the DNA of every citizen to be included. Then last week the Nuffield Council on Bioethics published a report suggesting that police should only be allowed to store permanently bioinformation from people who are convicted of a crime and that the potential benefits of establishing a population-wide forensic DNA database would not be great enough to justify the cost and intrusion to privacy at the current time. So who's right?

A poll was conducted for tonight's Panorama, Give Us Your DNA, indicating that 66% of the population would be in favour of everyone's DNA being sampled when they reached the age of 18, but that 64% would oppose samples being taken at birth. Thus, the programme suggested, the main objection against a universal DNA database is simply its being impolitic, rather than in any way inefficient. However, a senior forensic scientist who is the Director of Forensic Institute, Professor Allan Jamieson, believes that people put too much faith in DNA and are giving it an infallibility which it does not have. As he explained to the interviewer, "We've shaken hands. My DNA will be on your hand. You may touch something outside of this room that I have never touched, and therefore my DNA will be somewhere where I have never been."

As a geneticist, I would have few reservations about equipping the police with a tool that has proven invaluable in helping them to solve crimes, so long as adequate safeguards were in place to protect against the possibility of mistaken identity — such as not allowing cases to proceed where DNA alone is the only evidence. After all, even fingerprints, which cannot be carried off by anyone else, are not infalliable determiners of identity, as the case of PC Shirley McKie proved ten years ago.

In the current climate of CCTV, biometric passports and identity cards, however, and with our country already increasing resembling a police state or surveillance society, I cannot see how any expansion of the existing database could be achieved without damaging the relationship between citizens and the police, between people and government. No longer innocent until proven guilty, citizens treated with dignity and respect, we increasingly risk being reduced to potential suspects to be monitored and controlled by every means at every junction. Yet, healthy relationships are surely key to the social well-being of society, just as they are to the social well-being of individuals. Therefore, unless we want to lose what remains of our community structures, we must resist any moves towards a national DNA database.


Roxoroxy said...

We all want to be protected against crime, but in this case we need to ask whether the logic of a DNA database for crime detection might generate greater problems than it solves.

On the positive side, it may lead to the capture of some criminals who would otherwise escape punishment. It might also prevent some offenses at all if imprisonment protects the public against reoffending. However, it still seems improbable that the existence of a DNA database would prevent many crimes from occuring in the first place.

On the negative side the existence of a database changes the very logic of justice in our society and holds potential for egregious discrimination. Clearly we do not want to live in a society where the logic of 'security' always trumps our liberties - we would not, for example, want CCTV cameras in every room of every family home as a crime detection measure. In the case of the database we need to decide whether allowing police to store and scan our DNA is a balanced choice, or if it is an inappropriate intrusion into our privacy and if it undermines our moral dignity by presuming that each of us is a suspect criminal.

It seems to me that the potential benefits of the database are smaller than first appearances suggest(it will not prevent much crime), and that the threats it poses are more insidious than first appearances suggest. Moreover the existence of the database creates a need for careful ringfencing its legitimate uses. We would not wish to see, for example, crime risk-profiling of citizens based on their genetic identity, followed by surveillance or pre-emptive imprisonment.

Is a DNA database 'securitized' society better for the (small) increase in crime detection, or worse for the widespread but subtle impact on our attitudes to each other as neighbours and citizens? The jury is still out.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, what most 'geneticists' who are not involved in this type of work do not realise is that many cases involve mixtures of at least two people's DNA. In analysing such mixtures it is not possible to say who contributed, but only a collection of people who MAY have contributed. British scientists do not calculate the probabilities of false inclusions and of course the public are so conditioned that if your DNA COULD be there, and you are in the dock...
THAT is the biggest danger (I will not even begin on the topic of how one knows whether a peak on an epg is really a peak or not - why do they sometimes have to do it twice? Certainty?)