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Updated: November 2, 2012 19:00 IST

DNA databases: ‘India must learn from international experiences’

Deepa Kurup
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Helen Wallace: ‘We need safeguards to protect human rights and prevent miscarriage of justice.’
Helen Wallace: ‘We need safeguards to protect human rights and prevent miscarriage of justice.’

Helen Wallace says the U.K. is undergoing a rethink on its DNA policies

The Union government is working on a new version of a legislation that seeks to set up a national DNA data base of ‘offenders’, that allows for the collection and storage of DNA samples of those accused in cases ranging from homicide, sexual assault and rape to even violations under the motor vehicle Act.

A draft version of the legislation — first mooted in 2007 — envisages the maintenance of several state-level databases of suspects across a list of violations ranging from Motor Vehicle Act offences to crimes such as rape and murder.

Activists have opposed the legislation as a potential breach of citizens’ privacy, and have challenged it on ethical and technical grounds.

Helen Wallace, a member of Gene Watch, a U.K.-based group advocating against DNA databases, feels that India must learn from international experiences, particularly from the U.K. which was the first country to set up a database in 1995 that even allowed retention of DNA records of innocent citizens.

In May, the U.K. passed the Protection of Freedoms Act which will remove about 1 million records from the database.

In an interview with The Hindu, on the sidelines of a recent lecture at the Centre for Internet and Society, Ms. Wallace spoke about the need for proper safeguards, the proposed legislation and the cost-effectiveness of doing so in a country as India.

Excerpts:

Q: There’s been a major rethink on DNA profiling and databases in the UK. What are the lessons for India here?

A: The new law in the U.K. will remove about a million records from the computer database as well as destroy stored samples. Biological samples collected by the police will be destroyed within six months, innocent people’s DNA profiles and fingerprints will be automatically removed, and only a barcode instead of personal details will be sent to the lab. This does not solve all the problems but it is a big step forward to restoring public trust in police use of DNA in Britain. The U.K. government’s mistake was that it failed to consult on changes to the law and lost public trust in police use of DNA.

Why is creating and maintaining databases problematic?

We need safeguards to protect human rights and prevent miscarriages of justice. Firstly, excessive collection and retention of information on a computer database means individuals and their family members can be identified and tracked.

Secondly, DNA samples from crime scenes can be wrongly analysed, mixed up, planted or match wrongly just by chance. Thirdly, biological samples from individuals contain private genetic information about people's health which shouldn’t be stored.

What are the costs involved in maintaining such a database? Has any cost-benefit analysis been done?

The U.K. DNA database costs about Rs. 350 million a year in running costs alone. Adding one person’s DNA costs about Rs.3,500 and storing one person’s biological sample costs about Rs.80. Costs for police time are not available.

There are now 6 million people on the U.K. DNA database. From 2001, the U.K. more than doubled the size of its DNA database without solving any more crimes because police took DNA samples from people accused of very minor crimes. It is much more cost-effective to focus on improving crime scene DNA analysis and taking DNA from known suspects for a crime.

Policymakers are saying this will hugely assist crime solving. What has been the U.K. experience?

DNA evidence can be very important in securing convictions or exonerating innocent people. But the purpose of keeping people’s DNA profiles on a database is only to get a match with a crime scene DNA profile if they commit a future crime: their DNA profile does not need to be stored to solve the crime under immediate investigation. In the U.K. only 0.37 per cent of crimes which go to court involve a DNA match, because DNA is not available from most crime scenes. From 2001, the U.K. more than doubled the size of its DNA database without solving any more crimes: this is because police took DNA samples from people accused of minor crimes who did not go on to commit future crimes for which DNA evidence was relevant.

What do you think of the draft Indian legislation?

India’s Draft DNA Bill proposes including far too many people on the DNA database, including those involved in civil disputes about paternity. There is no judicial oversight, and so many innocent people, including people falsely accused of crimes for which DNA evidence is not relevant, will end up on the database.

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