GeneWatch PR: Police DNA database needs stronger safeguards for privacy and human rights

Embargo: 00:01 Wed 12 Jan 2005

Today, GeneWatch UK launched a new report on the Police National DNA Database (1) and warned that current policies and new DNA technologies pose increasing threats to privacy and rights. The database contains DNA profiles from more than 2 million people and is set to expand rapidly to include some 5 million people as a result of recent changes in the law. Many of these people will never have been convicted of any criminal offence (2).

"There are important changes that can be made to safeguard privacy and rights without compromising the use of DNA in fighting crime" said Dr Wallace. "Controls on the database must be tightened to prevent a Big Brother state".

DNA samples, in the form of a cheek swab or hairs, are analysed and the profile stored on a computer database and checked for matches with samples collected at scenes of crime. The samples are also stored, even though fresh samples are needed for use in court proceedings. The GeneWatch report shows that the database of DNA profiles is a useful tool for criminal investigations but warns that these profiles can be used to reveal family relationships (for example, non-paternity) and stored DNA samples may contain personal information about some people’s health.

The present system:

  • brings an increasing threat to ‘genetic privacy’ if information is revealed about health or family relationships, not just identity;
  • creates a permanent ‘list of suspects’, including anyone arrested for a recordable offence, even if they are never charged (3);
  • increases the potential for discrimination in the criminal justice system.

"There are real dangers in keeping people on the database for life, except when this is justified to protect the public. Within living memory, both fascist and communist governments in Europe have used personal records as a means of oppressing different populations", said Dr Wallace. "DNA is a powerful tool for tracing individuals and their families. Access to personal genetic information should be carefully controlled".

The new GeneWatch report concludes that more public involvement, transparency and accountability is needed in decisions about the DNA database. It recommends:

  • the creation of an independent, transparent and accountable governing body;
  • the destruction of individuals’ DNA samples once an investigation is complete, after the DNA profiles used for identification have been obtained;
  • an end to the practice of allowing genetic research using the database;
  • independent research into the effectiveness of the DNA database in tackling crime and the implications of new technologies;
  • public debate about who should be included on the database and for how long.

The report opposes the idea of expanding the police DNA database to include the whole population, because of the potential to create a future police state. Instead it suggests that the data retention policy should mirror that used on the Police National Computer – the database which stores people’s criminal records (4).

GeneWatch also warns that the priorities of the commercial companies which analyse DNA samples for the database may differ from the needs of the criminal justice system (5). For example, commercial priorities may include:

  • Permanent storage of DNA samples (which contain sensitive genetic information not needed for identification purposes). Companies supplying DNA profiles to the database are paid an annual fee to store the original DNA samples.
  • Undertaking genetic research using the samples and/or database which may lead to new commercial opportunities. Controversial research to date includes attempts to use DNA profiles to predict ethnicity.
  • Expanding the use of new technologies which claim to reveal more personal genetic information (such as genes linked to health, ethnicity, appearance or behaviour).

"Permanent storage of DNA samples; using the database for genetic research; and some new technologies significantly increase privacy concerns. Many of these developments bring marginal, if any, benefits in terms of tackling crime", said Dr Wallace. "A careful balance between crime detection, human rights and privacy would rule out most of these commercial practices".

For further information please contact:

Dr Helen Wallace on 01298-871898 (office) or 07903-311584 (mobile).

Dr Wallace is taking part in a debate about the database tonight at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre (12th January, 19:00 to 20:30. Bookings: 020 7942 4040).

Notes to editors:

  1. GeneWatch UK (2005) The Police National DNA Database: Balancing Crime Detection, Human Rights and Privacy. January 2005. Available on:
  2. The latest changes in the law came into effect in April 2004. They allow the police to take DNA samples without consent from anyone who has been arrested for a recordable offence and to store the genetic data and samples indefinitely, regardless of whether the person is charged or convicted.
  3. Recordable offences include being drunk in a public place; failing to leave licensed premises when requested to do so; taking part in a prohibited public procession; some types of trespassing; and begging. Most driving offences are not recordable.
  4. A brief overview of the current system for the Police National Computer is available on: . Records for convicted murderers and rapists are kept permanently but many other records are removed after fixed time periods. In some circumstances (relating to sexual offences) records are also kept when a person has been acquitted. In contrast, all records on the National DNA Database are kept until after the individual’s death.
  5. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is now investigating the Government’s plans to partially privatise the Forensic Science Service (FSS). The FSS and two private companies currently analyse DNA samples for the database: LGC Limited and Cellmark.

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