Thu, 20 Sep 2007
Below is the one page summary of the Nuffield Council on
Bioethics' report on the forensic use of bioinformation: ethical issues.
Fingerprinting and DNA profiling are increasingly valuable tools in the
detection and prosecution of offenders. However, the collection and
storage of bioinformation by the police, and access to the resulting
forensic databases, raise a number of ethical issues. This report
considers whether current police powers to take and use bioinformation
– powers that can affect the liberty and privacy of innocent people –
are justified by the need to fight crime. The principle of
proportionality is used as the basis for a number of recommendations to
policy makers, summarised below.
- The police should only be allowed to store permanently
bioinformation from people who are convicted of a crime, with the
exception of people charged with serious violent or sexual offences.
This would bring the law in England and Wales in line with
- Police powers should not be extended to allow police to
take and store bioinformation without consent from people arrested for
‘non-recordable’ offences, which include littering and minor traffic
offences, as is being currently proposed by the Home Office.
- The police should put more resources into the collection
DNA from crime scenes. At present, fewer than 20 percent of crime
scenes are forensically examined.
- Volunteers, including victims and witnesses, should be
to have their DNA removed from the National DNA Database at any time
without having to give a reason.
- There should be a presumption in favour of removing DNA
taken from children from the National DNA Database, if requested,
unless there is a good reason not to.
- Legal professionals and juries need to be given more help
to understand the meaning of DNA evidence, as the accompanying
statistics can be extremely difficult for non-scientists to
- The National DNA Database should not be used for familial
searching unless it is necessary and proportionate. This technique may
reveal previously unknown family relationships.
- ‘Ethnic inferences’ for DNA should not be routinely
by police. There are ethical and practical problems associated with
this technique, and the information it provides has limited usefulness.
- An ethics and governance framework for the National DNA
Database should be developed. An independent tribunal should also be
established to oversee requests by individuals to have their DNA
removed from the Database.
- There should be a statutory basis for the regulation of
forensic databases. This should include oversight of research and other
access requests. The current legislative framework is patchy and
- The establishment of a population-wide forensic DNA
database cannot be justified at the current time. The potential
benefits would not be great enough to justify the cost and intrusion to
The full 168-page report
from the launch event are available on the Council's
. My response
to the consultation and some further background on DNA matters are
linked from the Should
the Police keep your DNA forever?
It was made clear that there's stigma of being on the NDNAD as the government has portrayed it as containing ‘the whole of the active suspect criminal population’. As the report conclusions ask for many more removals from the NDNAD
and I recently discovered that there's no documented detailed process for this, I asked about whether the team had looked at efficacy of monitoring the management of the DNA profiles and the NDNAD. What they're keen to happen is to develop protocols similar to those used in medical research.
During the Q&A, it was pointed out that data protection rules
mean that when the Police take DNA samples, they have to inform the
individual that the samples may be used for research purposes. At that
point, it was asked if there was any Police officer in the room or if
anyone knew if the Police do mention this. No officer was present or
volunteered an answer. A couple of attendees volunteered that they had
witnessed officers taking DNA. Eventually I got the microphone and
mentioned that this had not been mentioned to me. It would appear that
I may have been the only one in the room that had been arrested and had
his DNA taken. Maybe there aren't many profiles of
white suited Home Office staff (they were present in number)
in the NDNAD? On the topic of data protection, someone from the Information Commissioner's Office mentioned that they had been keen for a long time for the Police to implement a step-out (deletion) procedure in addition to the existing step-down
(access restrictions) one.
Professor Peter Hutton, Chair
of the newly created Ethics Group
, reacting to some criticism
and to questions as to what is the remit of this group introduced
himself and mentioned that it had had its first meeting earlier this
month on 2007-09-03 and that the minutes will soon be published. This
is something to look out for.
The conclusion of the report will put pressure to review the current
situation and limit the uncontrolled expansion of the NDNAD. Creating
such a debate is very positive. The report could have gone further in
some aspects. For instance it doesn't consider there's a need to
differentiate between the DNA samples and the DNA profiles in terms of
retention. It also finds that so-called cold cases do justify keeping
the DNA of convicted criminals forever.