Wednesday 11 November 2009

Innocent to remain on DNA Database

It was announced this week that the Home Office will be holding the DNA of innocent people arrested in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for no more than six years on the national database. Why are DNA profiles of innocent people being held for so long in the first place? I'm totally against this decision and see it as another example of this government's attempts to erode our civil liberties.

The Government has introduced this measure following the European Court of Human Rights ruling from last year, which stated that it was illegal for this country to hold the DNA of innocent people indefinitely on a national database.

I couldn't agree more with this ruling. Scotland seems to have the right idea, as they delete DNA profiles of individuals who are not charged with any offence. I don't understand why the Government doesn't apply this to the rest of the country.

The argument put forward in favour of a large scale DNA database is that it allows the police to use DNA to solve crimes. The Home Secretary Alan Johnson was quoted saying:

"It is crucial that we do everything we can to protect the public by preventing crime and bringing offenders to justice. "

Well this is obvious. Clearly there has been a number of high profile cases solved through the use of DNA, which has been accessed from the database.

The issue that should be noted is the relatively small number of crimes that are solved through this evidence, in relation to the large numbers of innocent people already on the database. I don't believe it's justifiable.

If you're arrested your DNA will be held under the following circumstances:

Convicted adults - indefinite
Unconvicted adults - six years
Unconvicted, but arrested for terrorism - possibly indefinite
First minor offence - five years
Second minor or first serious offence - indefinite
Unconvicted 16 to 17-year-olds - six years for serious offence, three years for minor offence

In addition to this, people who voluntarily provide their DNA to help with police investigations will also have their details held.

Personally this is something that I'd never do. Not because I don't want to help the police solve serious crimes, but because there's no reason why any government requires my profile to be stored.

The database came into existence in 1995 and to begin with only the DNA of convicted criminals was retained. The government then decided to change the laws in 2004 which meant anyone arrested for a recordable offence would have their DNA details held.

The clock should be turned back to before 2004 as the measures now introduced are a compromise, made to comply with the European Court legislation and appease civil liberty groups. It hasn't succeeded though.

Shami Chakrabarti the director of the civil liberties pressure group Liberty, was quoted on its website saying:

“It seems the Government still refuses to separate the innocent and the guilty and maintains a blanket approach to DNA retention...."

"Nobody disputes the value of DNA and anyone arrested can have a sample taken and compared to crime scenes. But stockpiling the intimate profiles of millions of innocent people is an unnecessary recipe for error and abuse...."

There are serious ethical questions that need to be considered when we think about a national DNA database.

I know it helps in solving more crimes and convicting criminals, but the problem I have is when you have so many innocent people on it. It implies that anyone is a potential criminal. We already have the largest DNA database in the world and I wonder what this says about the type of country we live in?

DNA evidence is mainly used in crimes of a sexual nature or murder, which despite media coverage and public perception are very rare crimes.

Secondly, your DNA profile is a physical part of you. Why should any government hold this information for such a significant period? What reasons do they have if you've never been found guilty of a crime?

Sometimes I think it's good to be a little bit suspicious when it comes to the motives of governments holding too much personal information about you. This probably explains why I was also against the introduction of compulsory ID cards.

Finally, I've discovered that certain groups of people are inadvertently discriminated against. For example, records show that black men are more likely to be arrested then other ethnic groups in the UK. This has resulted in a situation whereby 40% of all black men now have their DNA stored compared to 9% of white men.

To use the word 'disproportionate' is an understatement when you consider that black people in this country only make up 1% of the population!

Your DNA in my opinion should only be held indefinitely if you're arrested and convicted of a crime. If not it should be removed immediately.

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