Global summary shows DNA database expansion continues without adequate protections
The Forensic Genetics Policy Initiative today released its first annual summary of the state of police DNA databases worldwide (1). The study reveals that sixty-four countries around the world are currently using forensic DNA databases, with many more planning to set up new databases.
Whilst DNA can play an important role in criminal investigations, many databases lack adequate safeguards to protect innocent people from government excessive surveillance and prevent miscarriages of justice. Highlights of the review show that, in 2016:
- Kuwait became the first country in the world to adopt a law to put its whole population and all visitors on a DNA database;
- India stepped back from pushing through new DNA database legislation after public controversy about the lack of safeguards.
In 2008, the European Court of Human Rights found that the retention of DNA from innocent persons on the United Kingdom’s DNA database was a blanket and indiscriminate interference with the right to privacy. The UK has since destroyed more than 7 million DNA samples and removed more than over 1.7 million computer records from its database, with no adverse impact on the role of the DNA database in solving crimes.
There are no global international standards for police DNA databases. This has led to a wide range of practices regarding when it is legitimate for police to collect DNA, how long computerized forensic DNA profiles can be stored on computer databases, and whether samples collected from named individuals should be destroyed to protect privacy. Some countries lack quality assurance standards for forensic laboratories and others lack quality standards for crime scene examination, where evidence can be contaminated or planted. Issues of concern include:
- The potential for the state, or anyone who infiltrates the database, to track down individuals and identify their relatives (including non-paternity), using DNA collected from a person’s coffee cup, for example, to find a match;
- The potential misuse of stored samples to obtain additional genetic information e.g. regarding health;
- The potential for miscarriages of justice due to false matches, contamination, or planted evidence.
“There is an urgent need for global standards to prevent DNA databases being misused for surveillance of whole populations, or to identify relatives or non-paternity” said Dr Helen Wallace, Director of GeneWatch UK. “In many countries, there are also real risks of miscarriages of justice as DNA databases expand, because crime scenes are not properly protected from contamination”.
Although most DNA databases are growing, they vary considerably in size:
- In the USA, the DNA database contains more than 14.3 million DNA profiles from individuals (about 4.5% of the population). At least 18 US states allow innocent people’s DNA profiles to be retained following a criminal investigation, with no automatic process of expungement. Many DNA samples are also retained indefinitely.
- In the UK, the DNA database contains 5.7 million DNA profiles from individuals (9% of the population). However, since the commencement of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 over 1.7 million innocent people and children have had their DNA profiles deleted from the UK database and 7.75 million DNA samples that were retained unnecessarily have been destroyed. The match rate when a crime scene DNA profile is loaded onto the database has continued to increase, as has the proportion of recorded crimes leading to an outcome recorded by the police (such as someone being charged) following a DNA match (2). Thus, the new legal safeguards did not cause any reduction in the role of the database in solving crimes.
- The largest DNA database is in China (estimated to contain more than 8 million individuals’ DNA profiles), however this is less than 1% of the population. Little public information is available.
- In France, the DNA database has been growing rapidly, more than doubling in size over 5 years: more than 2.6 million individuals now have DNA profiles on the database (4% of the population).
- Most other countries’ DNA databases contain less than a million DNA profiles and some contain only a few hundred. However, many countries plan to increase the size of their DNA databases, or to set up new ones, for example: Nigeria, Senegal, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Algeria, Oman, Bangladesh, Brunei, Vietnam, Pakistan, the Bahamas, Panama, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Barbados, Albania, Bosnia & Herzogovina, Serbia, Turkey and Georgia.
Contact: Dr Helen Wallace: +44(0)1288-24300; +44(0)7903-311584
Notes for Editors:
(1) Available on: http://dnapolicyinitiative.org/wiki/index.php?title=Global_summary