What Is the DNA Database, and Why Do We Have So Many People on It? ; the Big Question
Morris, Nigel, The Independent (London, England)
Why are we asking this question now?
Since its creation 11 years ago, ministers have taken great pride in the fact that this country leads the world in the creation of a national DNA database. But its rapid growth - it now contains genetic profiles of more than 3.6 million people, many of whom have never been convicted of an offence - is ringing alarm bells.
Sir Alec Jeffreys, a pioneer of DNA forensic science, has brought those fears into focus with a warning that the expansion is out of control. He condemned the "mission creep" behind the project, protesting that the database was never intended to include innocent citizens. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent think- tank, has also raised concerns that the country risks being transformed from a "nation of citizens" into a "nation of suspects".
The DNA database is just the latest example, civil liberties groups argue, of the gradual creation of a "surveillance state" by Labour. As evidence, they point to the proliferation of closed- circuit television cameras and plans for identity cards, underpinned by a national identity register.
What are DNA profiles and how are they taken?
Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) contains the genetic information unique to each living being. It is typically extracted from samples of saliva, blood, semen and hair. With the exception of identical twins, a human being's DNA is unique and the probability of a false match between two unrelated individuals is said to be less than one in one billion.
With the frontiers of genetic science pushed back over the past two decades - and courts ever more reluctant to convict on the basis of confessions - detectives have turned to the fast-developing technology with excitement. Non-intimate samples, usually a mouth swab, can be taken by police without consent, while consent has to be given for taking blood.
Why has the database developed so quickly?
The last Tory home secretary, Michael Howard, established the world's first DNA database, which is based in Birmingham. But the principle has been enthusiastically embraced, and developed, by Labour. Nearly four years ago police were given the right to obtain and retain DNA from anyone arrested, regardless of whether they are eventually prosecuted or convicted.
The legislation, which received very little publicity because it was announced on the second day of the Iraq war, has had the effect of dramatically accelerating the collection of samples.
Forty thousand profiles are added to the database every month and today some 6 per cent of the population - and far higher proportions of young men and ethnic minorities - are on record. That compares with an average just over 1 per cent in other European countries and 0.5 per cent in the United States. The genetic information remains on file for a person's life and is almost impossible to remove. The practice in England and Wales contrasts with Scotland where an individual's DNA details are removed if they are acquitted.
Suspicions are growing that the Government wants to create a national DNA database of every adult. They were fuelled last month when Tony Blair said he believed the number on the "database should be the maximum number you can get".
What safeguards are there against abuse?
An unnamed "custodian", based in the Home Office, has responsibility for controlling the quality of the database and for limiting access to its contents. In addition, a board bringing together Home Office officials, police chiefs and police authority members monitors its development. …
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Publication information: Article title: What Is the DNA Database, and Why Do We Have So Many People on It? ; the Big Question. Contributors: Morris, Nigel - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: November 2, 2006. Page number: 44. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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