posted 05-03-2001 02:17 AM
Could it be you?
What Britain's DNA testing laws will mean for
IN THE US, it would be protected by steel doors and armed
guards. In Britain, anonymity does the job. Tucked away on an
industrial estate near Birmingham, you'd scarcely know the
brick-and-glass building was there--let alone that it houses
the biggest collection of human DNA in the world. A collection
that's getting bigger--and more contentious--by the day.
For years, police in Britain have been quietly exercising their
right to collect saliva swabs from almost anyone they take into
custody. Those swabs now fill scores of industrial freezers in
the basement of the anonymous-looking building. Upstairs, a
database holds over a million DNA profiles based on these
samples. And because crime never stops, up to 3000 new
samples arrive every day.
On the streets of LA or New York the cops might have more
firepower. But it's in Britain, land of the unarmed bobby on the
beat, where the brave new world of the "DNA police" is taking
shape. And if Tony Blair and his colleagues have their way, it'll
take shape sooner than most people realise.
The British government wants to treble the number of DNA
samples police take and expand the criminal database to 3.5
million samples over the next three years. That means the
police will hold the DNA profile of nearly 1 out of every 15
people in Britain.
To hit this target, the government is giving the police
unprecedented powers to collect and keep DNA samples from
suspects--even if they turn out to be innocent. The
necessary Criminal Justice and Police Bill is being considered by
Parliament right now. Police chiefs are ecstatic. Civil rights
advocates see it as unparalleled threat to privacy. But most
people in Britain seem to be sleepwalking through the debate.
Now could be the time to wake up. New
Scientist has found that forensic
experts--the people you'd expect to be
most in favour--are actually uneasy about
the proposal to retain DNA samples. Even
the inventor of DNA fingerprinting is
alarmed. "I'm totally opposed," says Alec
Jeffreys of the University of Leicester.
"It's discriminating, inconsistent with
privacy laws and an example of ad hoc
There's no doubt DNA evidence is
transforming police work--and mostly for
the better. All detectives need do is find
a single hair, speck of blood or even a
flake of dandruff at a crime scene. Then,
after the few hours it takes for analysis,
they can trawl the database for matching
Often with stunning success. Since 1995,
more than 100,000 links between people
and crime scenes have popped out of the
computer. Every week, it delivers 800
more. And it's no longer just murderers or
rapists who have to worry. In Britain
these days, nearly 90 per cent of all DNA
matches are for burglaries, robberies and
Increasingly, there is nowhere for criminals to hide, as Stephen
Snowden found out when he was arrested for stealing a bottle
of whisky from a British supermarket. DNA testing linked him to
the rape, years earlier, of a woman whose car broke down.
Stealing the whisky led to a 12-year sentence for rape.
So routinely "swabbing" everyone taken into custody can pay
off bigtime. It is what happens to the samples and profiles
afterwards that disturbs critics. Other countries with a criminal
DNA database destroy them if the suspect is cleared.
Uniquely, the British government intends to keep them
indefinitely, regardless of the outcome. So the DNA profiles of
thousands of innocent people will end up on the criminal
"It goes against fundamental principles of justice," says David
Balding, a geneticist at the University of Reading who helped
expose early statistical problems with DNA fingerprinting. "If
you're acquitted or found not guilty, you shouldn't have to pay
any kind of penalty, no matter how small."
But what is the penalty? As Britain's Home Office likes to point
out, if you are an innocent, law-abiding person, why should
you worry about having your DNA profile scanned in the nightly
trawl for criminals?
One reason is that being on a database of potential offenders
regularly searched by the police puts you at risk of being
wrongly accused of crimes. The risk of two people having the
same DNA profile is nowhere near as great as it once was,
thanks to technical advances--but it can happen. Raymond
Easton, a builder from Swindon, gave a DNA sample in 1995
after a minor domestic incident. Three years later, he became
the prime suspect for a burglary after the forensic computer
matched his profile to a drop of blood from the crime scene. By
this time, Easton was suffering from Parkinson's disease and
had trouble dressing himself.
The match was based on an analysis of six regions of the DNA
found at the crime scene. There was only a 1 in 37 million
chance of another person matching in each of the six regions.
Unfortunately, Easton was that person. In 1999, a more
powerful test based on 10 regions of his DNA cleared him. The
episode so rattled Britain's Forensic Science Service that they
immediately made the more expensive 10-region test standard.
This has shrunk the risk of a chance match to one in a billion.
But the possibility of a rogue result hasn't vanished altogether.
"There's always the possibility of error, even with the 10-point
match," says Robert Forrest, a forensic toxicologist at the
University of Sheffield. "The tests are carried out by humans,
and humans are prone to error."
Humans are also prone to shedding bits of
themselves wherever they go--creating
more possibilities for wrongful suspicion.
As few as 50 cells--the number you might
shed brushing the back of your hand
against a glass door--can yield a genetic fingerprint. And soon
a single cell might be enough.
"As the tests become more sensitive, there's a greater chance
of picking up innocent contact at a crime scene," says Adrian
Linacre, a forensics expert at the University of Strathclyde. A
stray hair or cigarette butt dropped by an innocent person
might bring them under suspicion if they are on the database.
A bigger concern is what happens to the stored DNA samples
and profiles in the future. Who will have access to them and
the information they contain?
A DNA profile is just a string of numbers stored on a computer
(see below). In theory it contains no more information about
you than the number on your driving licence. But the samples
in the freezer contain all your genetic secrets. Scientists might
one day be able to return and extract detailed information
about your appearance, health and even your behaviour.
It is already possible to test crime scene DNA to see if the
offender has red hair. In future, police might want to know
about height, skin colour or even any unusual medical
conditions. Britain's national DNA database would be an ideal
place to go trawling for the genetic markers needed to develop
such biological "photofits".
And crucially, if someone does attempt to use the database
for this purpose, the DNA donors will be unable to object. "One
of the principles of research is that you can withdraw consent
from a project," says Forrest. "Here you can't withdraw
Forrest also worries the huge emphasis being placed on DNA
evidence will tempt police to arrest people on trumped-up
minor charges just to get a DNA sample. That, say some,
would take us perilously close to random DNA sampling on the
streets. Indeed, efforts are already underway to develop
handheld DNA profilers.
The government rejects this as paranoia, and claims that
current laws make it illegal to use the database for anything
other than identifying suspects. But laws can always be
ignored--and have been. When the national database was set
up in 1995, samples and profiles were supposed to be
destroyed if suspects were cleared. That hasn't been
happening. Last year, an internal government report estimated
that up to 80,000 samples and profiles were being retained
Even the government's own advisers fear the worst. According
to Britain's Data Protection Act, anyone who volunteers
biological samples for a database has the right at a later date
to ask for the sample and corresponding record to be
destroyed. The new legislation specifically removes that right,
says Jonathan Bamford, assistant commissioner of the Data
Bamford thinks the onus should be on the police to prove the
benefits of keeping DNA records of innocent people. "If there
are no matches, what is the purpose of keeping the sample
To deter people from committing more serious offences,
perhaps. "There's no evidence that DNA records act as a
deterrent," says Forrest. "They are just as likely to lead to
more forensically aware offenders. You'll use a condom next
time you rape, or wear a disposable boiler suit." Indeed, one
sex offender caught recently was found to have shaved off all
his body hair, trimmed his nails and even plucked his nostril
So if not for deterrence, why do the authorities want to keep
all the records? Easy, says Alec Jeffreys. Deep down they
believe that innocent people who've had a brush with the law
are more likely than not to be criminals. According to Jeffreys,
there is only one way to prevent any abuse of the DNA
samples--destroy them all after a DNA profile has been
obtained. Currently, the police rely on going back to the
samples to check any matches--a practice Jeffreys regards as
suspect. Any checking of results, he says, should be carried
out on a fresh sample obtained from the suspect.
What alarms him most, though, is the unfairness of lumping
together innocent people and criminals. Suspects who are
cleared should have the right to remove their DNA profiles, he
says. Or, more radically, the database should contain
everyone's DNA profile, filed at birth.
That prospect will appal many civil rights campaigners. But
according to Jeffreys, it is fairer than what is being proposed.
If you keep the DNA profiles of some innocent people, he says,
you ought to keep them all.
What is a DNA profile?
The end result of DNA profiling is a set of two numbers showing the
number of repeats in each copy of a particular marker. In the simplified
example shown below, it would be 3 4. The profiles stored in Britain's
National DNA Database are actually based on 10 different repeat
regions, plus a sex marker. So a real profile of a man would be
something like: 17 17; 14 17; 11 12; 16 17; XY; 13 14; 30 31; 11 23; 14 15;
7 8; 21 23. In addition, each entry in the database includes a person's
name, their date of birth, sex and ethnicity. Other details such as the
police force involved and an arrest summons number are also included.