DNA pioneer voices concern over database
By Astrid Zweynert
A pioneer of Britain's DNA database said on Wednesday it may have grown so far beyond its original purpose that it now risks undermining civil rights.
Professor Alec Jeffreys told BBC radio that hundreds of thousands of innocent people's DNA was now held on the database, a disproportionate number of them young black men.
The database, set up in 1995, has expanded to 3.6 million profiles, making it the largest in the world.
Everyone who has ever been arrested by the police, even if not charged, is obliged to provide a DNA sample for the database, which also includes victims of crime and others who have volunteered a sample to help a criminal investigation.
"The real concern I have in the UK is what I see as a sort of 'mission creep,'" said Jeffreys, who developed the techniques for DNA fingerprinting and profiling. When the database was initially established, it was meant to hold DNA from criminals, he added.
"Now hundreds of thousands of entirely innocent people are populating that database, people who have come to the police's attention for example by being charged with a crime and subsequently released."
The samples were "skewed socioeconomically and ethnically", he said. "In my view that is discriminatory."
Civil rights campaigners say a third of black males in England and Wales are on the database. They are also concerned about the lack of public consultation about the database.
DNA sampling has helped considerably in improving crime detection, helping to clear up cases that had remained unsolved for years.
For all recorded crime, the detection rate is 26 percent when there is no DNA evidence, but 40 percent when there is a sample, according to government data.
Jeffrey's comments coincided with the launch of a consultation on Wednesday to ask members of the public about their views on whether the laws allowing police to take, store and analyze DNA should be revised amid concern about a lack of public consultation on the database.
The study by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent research body, follows comments by British Prime Minister Tony Blair this month that a maximum number of people should be included in the database as it was vital for catching serious criminals.
The Council said that police have powers, "unrivalled internationally", to take DNA from an arrested person without consent.
"We want to hear the public's views on whether storing the DNA profiles of victims and suspects who are later not charged, or acquitted, is justified by the need to fight crime," said Professor Bob Hepple, chairman of the Council.
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