Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

DNA: Spare Pairs of Genes

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

DNA: Spare Pairs of Genes

Article excerpt

In the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on 27 February, two British lawyers began their attempt to overturn one of the most controversial police practices of recent years: the retention of DNA profiles and biological samples taken from individuals subsequently cleared of crimes.

More than 200,000 people with no criminal record are kept on the national DNA database. Attempts to have their details removed have been met with blanket refusal by senior police officers and the British courts.

Now the solicitor Peter Mahy and barrister Stephen Cragg are asking the European court to intervene. Mahy says it is "the most important case on the human rights implication of retaining biometric data and will probably be one of the most important human rights cases of all time".

He has a point. Britain today is obsessed with the DNA profiling of its citizens. Our database is, per head of population, the biggest in the world and contains more than 4.25 million entries. Every month, police take 60,000 new DNA samples and once on the database, that entry is linked, by computer, to their criminal records or--for those not subsequently convicted--to the incidents that first required them to be sampled. It is the first time that UK records of this depth and permanence have been kept.

We should not be surprised by this obsession. If DNA is left behind at a burglary, detection rates rise from 15 to 45 per cent, says Tony Lake, head of forensics for the Association of Chief Police Officers, while for car crime it rises from 9 to 30 per cent. In recent cases, such as those of the murderers Steve Wright and Mark Dixie, DNA has played a key role in obtaining convictions.

Profiling exploits a small section of DNA that contains pieces that repeat themselves over and over. Different people have different numbers of these genetic stutters, which can be counted to produce a digital readout. …

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