Sun, 13 Mar 2011

Six million DNA profiles, 1 million innocents. Still rising

At the end of 2010, there were 6,074,433 subject profiles on the national DNA database (NDNAD). James Brokenshire provided further updated figures in a written parliamentary answer:

The most recent figures available for England and Wales show that at 31 March 2010 there were an estimated 4,946,613 persons on the NDNAD, of whom 22% (an estimated 1,083,207 persons) did not have a current conviction, caution, formal warning or reprimand recorded on PNC.

The Protection of Freedoms Bill had its first debate in the House of Commons and a few days earlier, Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper attempted to score some political points with Guardian readers. Helen Wallace, director of GeneWatch UK, wrote a letter correcting some of her misunderstandings:

New DNA rules will restore public trust

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper (Relaxing DNA rules could reduce rape convictions, 28 February) claims that the DNA database proposals in the protection of freedoms bill would lead to 1,500 fewer DNA detections a year, many of these for rape.

She is quite simply wrong. Her calculations rely on the same discredited method used by the Home Office when Labour was still in power. This contains four major errors.

First, only a minority of detections rely on matching a new crime-scene DNA profile loaded to the database with a stored DNA profile from an individual: the rest match newly added individual profiles to stored crime-scene DNA profiles and will not be affected by the proposed changes in the law. Second, most crimes – as she notes – are committed by reoffenders, not the people without previous convictions whose records the bill plans to remove.

Third, only about 1% of crimes detected using the database are rapes, most are not committed by strangers and many are not resolved by DNA identification because consent is disputed. Fourth, the bill has been drafted carefully to account for those rare cases where a man suspected but not convicted of violence against women goes on to commit a stranger rape, by allowing a temporary retention period of three to five years for persons accused of serious offences. This will minimise the chance that any rapes go undetected.

By making better use of limited resources and restoring loss of public trust, the proposals in the bill are good for victims as well as a major step towards improving human rights.

Chris Pounder at Hawktalk sums up the Information Commissioner’s evidence to the Public Bill Committee on the Protection of Freedoms Bill. Here are some of the concerns about the DNA database:

“The Information Commissioner believes that there is no justification for the police to continue to retain a PNC identity record which is linked to other biometric records that the police are required to delete having served their purpose”.

The Commissioner is also concerned “that there is no facility available for individuals to request deletion of their DNA and fingerprints”.

In relation to the National DNA Database Strategy Board that governs the use of DNA, the ICO notes that “there are other interests (to be) reflected in the composition of the Board rather than just comprising of representatives of the law enforcement community”. This is a stark warning that DNA governance could well be dictated by the needs of the law-enforcement community under the supervision of the Home Office.

All I add is a simple comment: “well this is exactly what one would expect the Home Office to do!”.

More facts and figures, published by GeneWatch, can help you spot the many misinformed mistakes repeated by some politicians and journalists. There are plenty of ways having one's DNA profile retained can affect the life of an innocent.

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