back to article Bioethics group raises DNA database concerns

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has condemned the retention of "innocent" DNA on the National Database as unjustifed and unethical with "overtones of a police state". The council - a group of clinicians, lawyers, philosophers, scientists, and theologians - was established in 1991 to examine ethical issues raised by new …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Scarier and scarier

    " uses to which the database is now being put ...including 'ethnic inferences' and 'genetic predisposition to crime'...."

    *Is* now being put?! by whom? What evidence is there for DNA being able to predict in *any* way whether someone is "predisposed to crime".




    "Dear Mr and Mrs Smith,

    "Following little Jonny's recent compulsory DNA profiling, it has been determined that he is genetically predisposed to crime. As such he has been detained at a government education centre to protect himself, yourselves and society while an intensive program of specialist treatment is started to ensure that his criminal tendencies have no chance to flower.

    "You will be invoiced for this treatment on a quarterly basis and non-payment carries a mandatory fine and possible prison term.


    "The Home Secretary."

    Stop the island; I want to get off.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nothing to hide

    "The original aim of the DNA database was to match crime scene samples to suspect samples. It is now being used for "increasingly speculative searches", including "ethnic inferences" and "genetic predisposition to crime"."

    Nothing to hide people, nothing to hide...

  3. Graham Marsden

    Excellent report...

    It's about time that the Government's specious arguments of the "value" of DNA troughing like this were put under the microscope.

    It's a fundamental principle of Justice that a person has the right to be presumed innocent unless proven guilty, yet if your DNA is found at a crime scene you would be forced into having to "prove" your innocence.

    We've already seen the sort of thing that can result from this when victims of credit card fraud were charged with downloading child porn as a result of the Operation Ore fiasco, now, it seems the Government wants to treat us *all* as potential suspects "just in case" we might have committed a crime somewhere at some time.

    Of course this also relies on the records being *accurate* (see Terry Gilliam's film "Brazil" for a cautionary tale) and there being no False Positives, let alone a sneaky criminal planting someone else's DNA at the scene.

    Nothing to hide, nothing to fear? Yeah right...

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Are you just waking up... a police state?

    Some of us woke up in the last millenium - hint for the clueless is to google "RIPA".

    Best plan really is to become a citizen of another EU state. I'm seriously considering it myself :-)

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Means Motive Opportunity

    "Home Office that retaining the DNA of people who were innocent at the time of arrest had helped to solve crimes they committed years later."

    The DNA isn't just a tool for investigation of crime, it's also often the primary evidence! If you take DNA samples of everyone, then it becomes the first line of filtering and so by definition of the filtered set you've chosen, the DNA will always be a deciding factor in the arrest of criminals and the primary evidence of 'opportunity'.

    So it's a weighted set.

    And really you need to know how much it's also the causality. i.e. if you arrest fingerprint and DNA sample innocent people, how many of those people feel they have less to lose if they commit a crime? They have a record already, it will follow them around already, and negatively impact them all through their lives, so what difference does it make if it's a 'criminal' record rather than a 'suspected criminal' record?

    Then you have the innocent until proven guilty bias. If someone is arrested for murder and then released, and you know this, then the next murder you are more likely to assume they did it.

    That is why a jury is *not* allowed to see a defendants *non* convictions. Because it skews their perception of the evidence presented to bias that information against the defendant and results in a biased set. But that protection doesn't extend to investigation, where evidence of non convictions are used during investigations.

    But most of all, I don't want it. It's as simple as that, I don't know what horrors DNA cataloging everyone will lead to, but then I don't know how much information can be extracted from those DNA records yet, and nor do you, DNA cataloging is in it's infancy and UK plc should not be the test bed for it. Leave that to dictorships to test, it's the sort of thing they're good at.

  6. 3x2

    Get me off this f*****g island.

    Enough information to get a credit card in your name : 50p

    Map detailing your car movements yesterday + free complimentary mobile call log : 75p

    Copy of your on-line Medical Records : £1

    Arseholes claiming "I have nothing to hide" : Priceless

    There are some things you can blame on huge population-wide databases waiting to be harvested. For everything else, there's Genetic Profiling.

  7. Mike Richards

    A frighteningly sane report

    Written by 'clinicians, lawyers, philosophers, scientists, and theologians'.

    Ah that it explains it - no politicians.

  8. Nano nano

    Human Tisue Act 2004

    And yet people who have had tissue samples taken for medical research get protection via the Human Tissue Act, and there is outcry when it was revealed that some Sellafield workers had their organs checked for radiation issues.

    Extract from Notes on the Act - see mention of "cells":

    "... Part 1 is about consent. It sets out the requirement to obtain appropriate consent to carry out activities regulated under the Act: storage and use of whole bodies, removal, storage and use of human material (organs, tissues and cells) from the bodies of deceased persons, and storage and use of material from living people, for purposes set out in Schedule 1. ..."

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    simple solutions

    There are other simple solutions that we never hear about. I can only assume it is because those pushing for full scale DNA cataloging want the abusive level of control it offers.

    It would be far simpler to create a database that could eliminate suspects instead of identify them.

    if you could identify 10 key factors in DNA that were 50/50 yes/no identifiers (ie. like male / female ) you would have a semi-unique ID between 1 and 1024.

    Any single ID would belong to thousands of people across the country, so it could not be used for positive identification, but applied to even a few hundred suspects would still be more than enough for the police to properly focus their investigation.

  10. Phill

    Fucking DNA database

    I fucking hate this country

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    you just use dna testing the way it was origonally intended.

    "The original aim of the DNA database was to match crime scene samples to suspect samples."

    Which is to say you find samples at a crime scene and you test them against the person that you already suspect of the crime. The DNA evidence is then used to reinforce your case as opposed to make it.

  12. Chris Goodchild Silver badge


    The UK is rapidly heading toward a totalitarian state for no better reason than the fact that it can. Dna is for the most part only circumstantial evidence in the majority of cases. The fact that scales of your skin, saliva, hair etc is found at a crime scene indicates only that, somehow bits of you were present at the scene. In many cases without further supporting evidence it is not proof that you were actually there in person only that parts of you were. It should be the job then of the police and forensic techs to provide sufficient other proof to show that you defintately were there.

    Unfortunately the police in the UK appear to take any DNA evidence as enough proof to put the indivual whose DNA it is, in the position of having to prove their innocence.

    Obviously in the case of rape, where evidence can be in a place that demonstrates a virtual certainty of the evidential provider having been there in person,it is reasonable to at minimum interview that person BUT under British law that person is STILL innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

    The government of the UK and it's police seem to have forgotten that.

    Britain is on it's way to something way bayond a nanny state unless you consider a nanny like the one in `The Hand That Rocks The Cradle´

    Let's just hope this review has an effect, just don't hold your breath

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    That's about the most sensible suggestion

    "Which is to say you find samples at a crime scene and you test them against the person that you already suspect of the crime. The DNA evidence is then used to reinforce your case as opposed to make it."

    Yep, that sounds the most sensible solution. Let police take DNA samples of suspects in a case, but not retain them for innocent people afterwards.

    If it turns out that there are no negatives to having a DNA database of everyone, and it is never misused then UK PLC can reconsider it. But until then, let some other country pioneer them.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "If it turns out that there are no negatives to having a DNA database of everyone..."

    actually there is a very serious negative. Because matching is done on a VERY small fragment of the whole dna "fingerprint", false matches can occur which only increase in probability with the size of the database. there is at least one recorded instance of a false match against the UK database back in 2000 when the whole thing only had ~600,000 records. The guestimate given at the time for the chance of a false match was 1 in 37 million - these probability figures have been seriously questioned (as have those commonly bandied about for the uniquness of fingerprints, particularly in comparisons of partials)

  15. Steve Browne

    At last

    It is official, "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" is now determined to be a fallacious statement. I like the other point too, that the home office have no worthwhile evidence of DNA helping to solve crimes. Just some inconsistent statistics and a few tales of nasty men being caught doing things.

    Perhaps it would be interesting to see what the Nuffield Council would make of identity cards.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    DNA is a piece in the jigsaw

    "Unfortunately the police in the UK appear to take any DNA evidence as enough proof to put the indivual whose DNA it is, in the position of having to prove their innocence."

    That's not how crimes are investigated using DNA. What happens is that there is a "hit" which comes from the NDNAD to the relevant police station linking an individual to a crime scene. That hit will be graded according to quality. The police officer who is tasked with it will then do a series of basic checks and enquiries to establish the likelihood of it being indicative.

    Example 1. High quality DNA hit of person with a recent record for burglary commercial offences committed in South Yorkshire comes in. It is linked to a shop burglary in Barnsley. Confidence is high that the hit is good and the identified suspect ought to be arrested and interviewed. Nevertheless, it's far from conclusive proof and unless further evidence is found, he'll walk.

    Example 2. Lower High quality DNA hit of person with just one previous arrest, and that was for disqualified driving in Essex in 1998, comes in. The hit is linked to a shop burglary in Barnsley. Now there is little confidence that the hit is good and the identified is very unlikely to be arrested unless there is further obvious evidence - in fact, he may never even find out about it.

    I have to say that the vast majority of hits indicate local, well-known repeat offenders, so example 2 is very rare. The system we have now is far from perfect, no system is and we must always be on our guard. But overall, DNA does help to clear up a lot of crime and as such it is invaluable.

    We need a small, composite national database of persistent and serious offenders only. The worst thing that could happen is for the database to be diluted with the profiles of millions of people who are NEVER going to commit a serious offence - and that has already started to happen. To do that would mean that false matches, which are now extremely rare, would become more common, and that would undermine its reliability and provide defence lawyers with ammunition to attack it.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "That's not how crimes are investigated using DNA. What happens is that there is a "hit" which comes from the NDNAD to the relevant police station linking an individual to a crime scene. That hit will be graded according to quality. The police officer who is tasked with it will then do a series of basic checks and enquiries to establish the likelihood of it being indicative."

    That's what we'd like to think would happen, and I'm sure often does but sadly all to often we see cases of law enforcment jumping the gun (Our own letter box vandalism friend who posted a while back and not exaclty the same but an example of police not paying much attention to the real world our notable friend who managed to get his DNA removed from the system, there are I'm sure hundreds more cases of Law Enforcment just being plain nuts.) Now that's not to say all our Law Enforcment folks are incompentant babboons incapable of acting on their own initiative (sadly it seems initiative is no longer a much desired talent but an irritating by product that get in the way of dogmatically following protocols that are thought up by warlocks somewhere.)

    See I get where the Police come from, they want to keep everyone safe, and the best way to do that is to lock everybody away. That's their angle, and that's fine, that's why we're supposed to have politiicians and Judges who make laws based on cold facts. Sadly now laws are made based on tabloid front pages.

    I for one have no faith in our Law Enforcers or our Politicians. It is a sad state of affairs. Of course I lay the blame at the best part of 16 years of governments turning our Police force from a group who investigate crime to little more then doormen who tick boxes and wonder the streets in the hope that they may stumble across crime.

    Oh and I'm one of the happy many on the DNA database, drunk and incapable on a public highway (read I was drunk, asleep in a bush when I was 18 a long long time ago.) Infact most of my friends are on their for Drunk and Incapable too...

  18. Steve Roper

    No such thing as removal from a database

    Those who think that giving citizens the right to demand removal from a database actually results in removal are deluding themselves. Even if the data is physically deleted in sight of the person, what most people forget is that it is standard procedure for all public and company databases to be backed up and stored offsite. That's standard disaster recovery policy, anywhere; any public office or company that doesn't regularly make offsite backups of its data is begging for trouble, not to mention possible litigation in the event of loss of critical or financial data.

    What this means is that even if your details are deleted from the main database, the tape backups locked away in government archives will of course still retain the information, and the admins are NOT going to modify a backup tape as this is a legal record of the state of the database at the time of the backup. So, while it DOES make it harder to retrieve your information once deleted, if an investigation draws a blank on the current database, you can bet they'll go to the archives.

    Just as posting something on the internet means it stays there forever, so too does any record on any company or public database. Ever.

  19. Arif Rashid

    Not a good idea

    a few of the problems with having everyone's DNA on file:

    1) Police will get lazy (not that they arent already) and immediately assume that if ur DNA is found at a crime scene, ur guity.

    2) DNA Profiling - Think of Gattica where u cant even get a decent job without the 'right DNA'

    3) i remember reading something about something like 1 in 26 people has the wrong father i.e. the man they thought was their father and who raised them is not their Biological father... a lot of women are gonna have some explaining to do...

    4) Insurance companies - the fact that insurance is a legit scam in the first place is neither here nor there. Its only going to be a short step (and some well financed Lobbiests) for MP's to pass laws allowing the likes of insurance companies to look at the DNA database and for them to (NOT) offer insurance to only those who are not genetically more likely to get a particular diesease.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The burden of proof

    DNA evidence can't be completely trusted, possibly can't be trusted at all, but there seems to be little attempt to convince investigators or jurors about that.

    DNA evidence can be fabricated. A criminal can collect another person's DNA and plant it at the scene of a crime. Worse still, a corrupt police officer could plant a suspect's DNA at the scene of a crime, and use it to "prove" that their suspect is the person they're looking for.

    Even if the DNA is genuinely there, and even if the DNA can be presumed to have been left there by the person to whom it relates, it doesn't necessarily mean they're guilty of the crime. But the statement in court "DNA from Mr X was found at the scene" will almost certainly be assumed by jurors to mean that Mr X was guilty even if there's no other proof.

    By far the biggest need is for acceptance that DNA is only a clue, not proof of anything. Thus DNA "evidence" should not be presentable in court, should only be used to reinforce other evidence that *already* exists and should never on its own be the reason for questioning a subject or searching the subject's premises.

    The only acceptable use of DNA is to prove that the prime suspect probably did NOT do something ... if none of the person's DNA was found at the scene, then very likely that person is innocent.

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