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Biotech Government Politics

Bioethics Group Raises DNA Database Concerns 150

PieGuy107 writes "In its report, The Forensic Use of DNA and Fingerprints: Ethical Issues, the council recommends that police should only be allowed to permanently store bio-information from people who are convicted of a crime. Today, the police of England and Wales have wider sampling powers than the police force of any other country, and the UK has (proportionally, per head of population) the largest forensic database in the world. When the police first began using DNA, consent was required before samples could be taken. A succession of Acts of Parliament and legislative amendments has increased police powers of sampling; the police can now take DNA samples from all persons arrested, without their consent, for recordable offenses (an "arbitrary" classification), and retain the samples indefinitely regardless of whether the person arrested is subsequently convicted or even charged. In response to comments from the 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 Nuffield Council stuck to its guns. "There has to be a limit to police powers," said Dr Carole McCartney, one of the report's authors. "DNA shouldn't be retained simply on the basis that it might turn out to be useful." She added that many of the statistics from the Home Office were "inconsistent, incomplete and confusing" and that much of its evidence consisted of anecdotal accounts of "horrible men caught with DNA"."
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Bioethics Group Raises DNA Database Concerns

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  • by ThatsNotFunny ( 775189 ) on Wednesday September 19, 2007 @12:22PM (#20668929)
    How about storing the DNA for the length of time equal to the statute of limitations for the crime they are being charged with? If they are not formally charged, then a two- to three- year period seems fair.
  • Convicted? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ObsessiveMathsFreak ( 773371 ) <obsessivemathsfr ... .net minus physi> on Wednesday September 19, 2007 @12:28PM (#20669033) Homepage Journal
    Comrades, you need only be detained for questioning to have your DNA permanently on record.

    They're going to end up just taking it a birth or while kids are in school or at hospitals. Unless there are explicit laws disallowing all evidence obtained though knowledge of such surreptitiously obtained DNA, the government will have a free hand to gather any information it wants. Without such laws, judges will cave in the face of teary eyed victims and media pressure, and if you so much as left a hair in a public place ten years ao, the police will be allowed to gather that and add you to their lists.

    In case you think there's nothing wrong with this, answer me this. How many wealthy and powerful people do you think have their DNA, or will ever have their DNA, in a government database?
  • by CodeShark ( 17400 ) <{ellsworthpc} {at} {}> on Wednesday September 19, 2007 @12:29PM (#20669053) Homepage
    Like the other poster who notes that DNA information categorizes families, I have SOME concerns about the legality and potential abuse of DNA samples for those not convicted of a crime.

    The question of usefulness does come into play, however -- and realize that in what I am about to say, I'm not a DNA expert so I welcome further commentary from those who are. If a sibling of mine were to be the person that is guilty of a "horrible" crime, and for whatever reason my DNA profile is on record (say for a security clearance type position, etc.), would my profile be useful to the police in finding that sibling? And at what level does this come into play? If the sibling is guilty of nothing but being nearby a scene and there is DNA, or the so-called crime doesn't really rise to the level of "horrible", shouldn't my anonymity and the siblings anonymity be guaranteed up to a point?MP> What do you think?

  • by MillionthMonkey ( 240664 ) on Wednesday September 19, 2007 @12:40PM (#20669201)
    That's true theoretically but not meaningfully.

    Why not? [] Even Lesley Stahl gets it.

    But Stephen Mercer disagrees. "Of course they're gonna come up with analogies that seem to do away with any sense of wrongdoing or any sense of violation of privacy by the government. So, they say, 'Oh, well this is like a partial plate, and we're just following up on these leads....," he says.

    "And what's wrong with that?" Stahl asks.

    "Because it's not a partial plate. We're talking about DNA. DNA is different. DNA contains a vast amount of intensely personal information," Mercer says.

    And he says there are serious racial implications, because since blacks are overrepresented in the prisons, and therefore in the DNA database, extending it to relatives would magnify the disparity.

    "What you're gonna end up seeing is nearly the majority of the African American population being under genetic surveillance," Mercer says. "If you do the math, that's where you end up."

    "Extremely specific question. You have a crime lab looking at DNA in a horrific crime. They get a partial match, a very close match, and the DNA expert suspects a brother. Should he withhold that information from the police, or should he tell the police, 'We think a brother did this?'" Stahl asks Mercer.

    "If it comes from a database search?" Mercer asks.

    "Yes," she replies.

    "Then it should not be revealed," Mercer says.

    "So, the DNA expert should just say, 'Sorry. No match.' And that's the end of it? And not pass this incredible clue along?" Stahl asks.

    "That's correct," Mercer argues.

    Mitch Morrissey says he has a big problem with that. "They have this information. And they're not telling the lead investigators? How do they justify that to the next victim of this serial rapist?" he asks.

    Morrissey thinks the U.S. should do what the British are doing: they have developed a technique to scour their DNA database, deliberately searching for partial matches that might indicate a relative.
  • by demachina ( 71715 ) on Wednesday September 19, 2007 @12:53PM (#20669365)
    As proof that Brunner, author of "The Sheep Look Up", "Shockwave Rider" and "Stand on Zanzibar" is in fact psychic or actually has a time machine is this classic quote from The Sheep, which is scary prescient:

    "I'm referring specifically to apparently normal children, without obvious physical or mental defects. I'm convinced people are subconsciously aware of what's going on, and becoming alarmed by it. For example, there's an ingrained distrust in our society of highly intelligent, highly trained, highly competent persons. One need only to look at the last presidential election for proof of that. The public obviously wanted a figurehead who'd look good and make comforting noises"
  • by Reziac ( 43301 ) * on Wednesday September 19, 2007 @12:57PM (#20669433) Homepage Journal
    I had a related thought: Okay, so let's say a nifty new law is passed that forces the cops to discard your DNA *sample* after NN-long has passed.

    This does nothing to limit *propagation* of your extremely portable DNA profile, which is nothing but a list of markers that looks like this:

          AA BB CC CE DJ etc.

    Even if the cops purge their database as well as their sample cabinet, are you so sure that in the meantime, your profile (with all your associated personal info) hasn't migrated somewhere else?

    Think of your DNA profile as a credit card that cannot be cancelled in the event of loss or misuse, and guard it accordingly.

  • by chihowa ( 366380 ) on Wednesday September 19, 2007 @12:57PM (#20669437)
    I know that there's not much love for it floating around, but it's odd that you didn't mention "Gattaca", which is wholly and specifically about this particular topic. It's taken a step further with genetic engineering of the new births, but the ubiquitous DNA database and fast sequencing aspects are tackled (as well as any Hollywood movie will tackle them).
  • by cayenne8 ( 626475 ) on Wednesday September 19, 2007 @01:12PM (#20669697) Homepage Journal
    "Even if the cops purge their database as well as their sample cabinet, are you so sure that in the meantime, your profile (with all your associated personal info) hasn't migrated somewhere else?

    Think of your DNA profile as a credit card that cannot be cancelled in the event of loss or misuse, and guard it accordingly."

    I agree whole heartedly. There are states that gladly sell your drivers license information to private companies ( Acxiom [] for example). What would keep them from selling it like that information?

    I'd certainly had for DNA of everyone to get out. The insurance companies alone would have a field day. You think it is hard now to get private insurance, if you have a pre-existing condition or something like high triglycerides? (I know about the latter one well), well, wait till they can pre-screen your DNA to find out what you might be afflicted with in the future.

    And if your identity is stolen....or something bad is associated with your DNA profile....good luck getting that taken care of. Either people will be screwed for life (you can well change your DNA), or DNA will cease to be an important determining factor. The latter may happen, but, probably LONG after many people have their lives ruined. Talk about the ultimate biometric factor...

  • by p0tat03 ( 985078 ) on Wednesday September 19, 2007 @01:26PM (#20669905)

    UK is in a race to be the first "democratic" police state, who wants to join us and finish second?

    It certainly seems that way doesn't it? For everything the Americans do that scream totalitarianism, you Brits have done one better. I'm just glad I live in Canada, where we receive everything at least a decade after you Brits and Americans (that goes for consumer electronics AND police states).

  • Genetic Disposition (Score:3, Interesting)

    by isellmacs ( 661604 ) on Wednesday September 19, 2007 @01:39PM (#20670105)
    What happens if they starting looking at the list of people who commit crimes and compare their DNA looking for links to "genetic disposition" to create a certain type of crime?

    If they example the DNA of thousands of rapists, for example, and find they all have certain genetic traits in common, will they then theorize that anybody with this genetic trait be more likely to commit rape? What would they do? The potential for "crime prevention" might be high in their eyes, maybe even to the point of pre-emptively arresting and convicting people for their genetics? Think about the potential for false positives; do you think that would stop them from trying to convict "potential" criminals?

    I disagree that DNA is just like a finger-print; the amount of information they can gain, or they can speculate on, is orders of magnitude higher. Anything like this should always under-go major scrutiny, especially measuring the potential for abuse. Politicans and Police Officers CAN, HAVE and WILL abuse whatever powers they are given, history has shown very clearly to me that that will probably never change.

    It's one thing to give Police tools that could be useful in finding somebody who's commited a crime, but i'm 100% against giving them anything that would allow any sort of pre-emptiveness against peopel who "might" commit a crime. Once the police get ahold of a way to do genetic profiling to try and determine potential criminals, it'll be too late.

  • Re:Convicted? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by sholden ( 12227 ) on Wednesday September 19, 2007 @02:40PM (#20671013) Homepage
    They're way ahead of you: []

    It was revealed this year that more than 100,000 DNA samples had been taken from children, aged ten to 16, who have never been charged or convicted of any crime.

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