DNA Bill can be misused for caste-based profiling, says panel draft report

The measure proposes DNA sampling and profiling of citizens accused of crime or reported missing

Updated - August 24, 2020 05:05 pm IST

Published - August 24, 2020 04:57 pm IST - New Delhi

The Bill that proposes DNA sampling and profiling of citizens accused of crime or reported missing and storing their unique genetic information for administrative purposes has some alarming provisions that could be misused for caste or community-based profiling, a draft report of the parliamentary standing committee on science and technology has flagged.

The committee headed by Congress leader Jairam Ramesh met on Monday, but for want of quorum, the draft report, which has been circulated among the committee members, was not finalised.

The DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Act, 2019 , has been in the works for 15 years now. Nearly 60 countries have enacted similar legislation with the U.S. bringing in a law as far back as in 1994.

Sensitive info

The committee, in its draft report, pointed out that the DNA profiles can reveal extremely sensitive information of an individual such as pedigree, skin colour, behaviour, illness, health status and susceptibility to diseases. “Under the provisions of the Bill, access to such intrusive information can be misused to specifically target individuals and their families with their own genetic data. This is particularly worrying as it could even be used to incorrectly link a particular caste/community to criminal activities,” the report notes.

Decoding the DNA Bill

DNA database

The report has also red-flagged disregard to an individual’s privacy and other safeguards. The Bill proposes to store DNA profiles of suspects, undertrials, victims and their relatives for future investigations. “While there is a good case for a DNA database of convicts, so that repeat offenders may be easily identified, there is no legal or moral justification for a database with DNA of the other categories as noted above, given the high potential for misuse,” the report has noted.

In the Bill, if a person is arrested for an offence that carries punishment up to seven years, investigation authorities must take the person’s written consent before taking the DNA sample. But this consent, the draft report flags, is only “perfunctory.”

‘Perfunctory consent’

“The Bill refers to consent in several provisions, but in each of those, a magistrate can easily override consent, thereby in effect, making consent perfunctory. There is also no guidance in the Bill on the grounds and reasons of when the magistrate can override consent, which could become a fatal flaw,” the draft report notes.

Proposed DNA bank will not store data permanently: official

The Bill permits retention of DNA found at a crime scene in perpetuity, even if conviction of the offender has been overturned. The committee has urged the government to amend the provisions to ensure that if the person has been found innocent his DNA profile has to be removed immediately from the data bank.

Independent scrutiny

The committee has recommended that independent scrutiny must be done of the proposals to destroy biological samples and remove DNA profiles from the database.

The Bill also provides that DNA profiles for civil matters will also be stored in the data banks, but without a clear and separate index. The committee has questioned the necessity for storage of such DNA profiles, pointing out that this violates the fundamental right to privacy and does not serve any public purpose.

The committee has also called the Bill “premature” and in the absence of robust data protection legislation, the security of a huge number of DNA profiles that will be placed with the National DNA Data bank and its regional centres is questionable.

Loopholes apart, the Bill is urgently required as its applications would be to enable identification of missing children. As per the National Crime Records Bureau, annually 1,00,000 children go missing. The Bill will also help in identifying unidentified deceased, including disaster victims and apprehend repeat offenders for heinous crimes such as rape and murder. DNA testing is currently being done on an extremely limited scale in India, with approximately 30-40 DNA experts in 15-18 laboratories undertaking less than 3,000 cases per year, which represent 2-3% of the total need. However, the standards of the laboratories are not monitored or regulated.

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