Thu, 20 Sep 2007

The forensic use of bioinformation: ethical issues

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 full 168-page report and presentations from the launch event are available on the Council's website. My response to the consultation and some further background on DNA matters are linked from the Should the Police keep your DNA forever? blog post.

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.

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