The Issues

Today, 60 countries worldwide are operating forensic DNA databases and at least 34 countries, including Brazil, India, Tanzania, Thailand, Chile and Lebanon plan to set up new DNA databases.  A number of countries, including Australia, China, Israel, South Africa and New Zealand are actively in the process of expanding their databases. Other countries, such as Bermuda, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Pakistan have even proposed including their entire populations on a DNA database.


DNA databases around the world vary widely on issues ranging from access and consent to retention of both DNA samples themselves as well as the computerized profiles created from them. However, there are no international standards and limited safeguards to protect privacy and human rights.


The growth of forensic DNA databases worldwide is often characterized as the natural response to public demands for better policing. But the alarming rate of creation and expansion of such databases, with little public input and discussion, has been anything but piecemeal. In some countries, DNA is being collected routinely from people on arrest, even when it has no relevance to the crime being investigated, and DNA profiles and samples have been stored indefinitely from large numbers of innocent people. Other countries lack basic quality assurance for laboratories or a reliable system to track DNA evidence from the crime scene to the court and prevent mix-ups, contamination and miscarriages of justice.


Public and private entities from the US are actively promoting DNA databases, often portrayed as technical solutions to high crime rates. The Department of Justice FBI Laboratory has worked with over 29 countries to plan and create their databases (running the FBI developed CODIS system) including promoting international agreements and authorizing legislation. Even individual US elected officials are actively promoting DNA databases abroad; Denver District Attorney Mitchell Morrissey, for example, regularly consults with foreign governments on their DNA databases.


The UK Government spent 12 years expanding its DNA database until, in response to human rights concerns and legal challenges, it removed more than one million innocent people’s DNA profiles from the database and destroyed more than 6 million DNA samples.   Before it was closed down in 2012, the UK’s Forensic Science Service (FSS) had directly contracted with the UAE to build a database of its whole population.


The promotion of forensic DNA databases is by no means limited to governments. A diverse private industry has developed to directly contract with foreign governments to build and maintain such systems, including offering policy recommendations largely modelled on United States practice. Over the last eleven years, Life Technologies has advised over 50 foreign governments and states on forensic DNA legislation, policy and law and regularly makes promotional presentations to foreign countries. In 2009, for example, the government of Japan standardized their DNA collection and analysis for the country’s forty-seven prefecture laboratories using Life Technologies DNA testing systems. Life Technologies continues to provide support to Japan’s National Police Agency. Such services are by no means limited to those countries that request them either. In 2009 the Bermuda government signed a million dollar multi- year contract with Florida-based firm Trinity DNA solutions to set up and run their database after salesmen for the company had approached Bermudan officials engaged in a comprehensive marketing plan.


Expanding collection and analysis of DNA to include large numbers of innocent people and people accused of very minor offences can be very profitable, even though a more targeted approach is a much more cost-effective way to make the best use of DNA in criminal investigations.


Efforts to share DNA data between countries have also expanded, allowing for data sharing across borders with little oversight. In Europe, data-sharing agreements have been established through the European Union (the Prüm DNA Search Network), although the UK Government now plans to opt out from this agreement amid concerns about the potential for false matches between its citizen’s DNA and DNA collected from crime scenes in other European countries.


Through their DNA Gateway and G8/Interpol Search Request databases, the international policing agency Interpol is able to collate DNA profiles provided by member states and make these available to investigators globally where a match has been recognized. Interpol has 184 member countries and currently forty-nine members are making use of the DNA Database to varying degrees. Despite over ten years of operation, Interpol’s databases still do not have clear operating procedures; for example, there is no transparent system for removing DNA profiles nor are there standards for comparing requests between member states with differing standards and forensic practices.

© 2014 Forensic Genetics Policy Initiative