Rein in DNA Fingerprinting, Report Urges

Police in the United Kingdom should keep DNA profiles of only people convicted of a crime, not of suspects, children, or other individuals. That's the conclusion of a report released today by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent group advising the U.K. government.

The use of DNA to identify suspects and convict criminals has grown rapidly since geneticist Alec Jeffreys of the University of Leicester, U.K., first deployed the tool in a rape investigation in 1984. The U.K. police now maintain genetic information on about 4 million individuals, or 6% of the country's population; U.S. authorities have comparable data on a much smaller fraction of their population, about 4.6 million people. The collections include DNA profiles of suspects, convicts, volunteers, and even thousands of children who for one reason or another have been swept into the net. The U.K. government recently sought advice on whether limits should be placed on such biological data collecting. The answer from the Nuffield Council is an emphatic "yes."

In its 160-page opinion, a working group of the Nuffield Council lists a series of proposed restrictions on record-keeping of DNA profiles, fingerprints, and other biological records. Perhaps the broadest recommendation is that data be kept permanently on only people convicted of a crime. Furthermore, the group finds, the list of "recordable offenses" that result in automatic collection of data should "exclude all minor, non-imprisonable" crimes, such as littering and speeding. In general, data gathering should be proportional to the crime, the council argues, and the system should favor requests to remove data on children under age 18 unless there is a good reason not to do so. (By one estimate, about 750,000 U.K. minors are now profiled.)

The report also recommends against a proposed nationwide forensic DNA database, saying the economic cost and risk to privacy outweigh the likely benefit to public safety. But it notes that the balance could tip back some day and that the decision should be "subject to review as biometric technology develops."

Despite its recommendations, the report does not identify any major methodological flaws or call for significant changes in DNA profiling. Panel chair Bob Hepple, professor emeritus of law at the University of Cambridge, U.K., admits there's a risk that DNA samples may become contaminated or that other processing errors might lead to the mistaken identification of an individual, but he writes that "the science and technology of DNA fingerprinting and profiling are, for the most part, increasingly robust and reliable."

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