DNA profiles removed at rate of only one a day

So the Independent reports figures unearthed by Paul Holmes MP:

Innocent people’s DNA profiles are being removed from the national database at a rate of barely one a day, figures showed today.

Home Office minister Alan Campbell said just 377 profiles were deleted in 2009 after appeals to police chiefs.

Liberal Democrat policing spokesman Paul Holmes, who uncovered the figures through a written parliamentary question, described the situation as a “disgrace”.

Mr Holmes said chief constables were being discouraged from removing the genetic fingerprint of innocent people until new legislation is passed, which he insisted would not happen before the general election.

The DNA database for England and Wales holds over five million profiles – the largest per head of population in the world – including an estimated one million people with no criminal conviction.

The Government has been forced to change the rules surrounding the database after the European Court of Human Rights said that holding the profiles of innocent people indefinitely was disproportionate and a breach of privacy rights.

Mr Holmes said of the figures: “It is a disgrace that we have got a million innocent people on the database in the first place and it is a disgrace that people are not being taken off.

“A lot of people are absolutely furious about this. The court ruling went their way and yet nothing is happening.

“Police forces have got the discretion to remove profiles, yet some are and some aren’t.”

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8 Comments

  • “Police forces have got the discretion to remove profiles, yet some are and some aren’t.”

    Much as I hate to be cynical (no really) isn’t that what discretion means?

  • Andrew Suffield 14th Jan '10 - 4:22pm

    Well, there was a considerable push for innocent people to be removed from the database, and the response was “police (now) have the discretion to do this”. What he means is, they were supposed to be dealing with the issue, and they mostly aren’t.

  • Malcolm Todd 14th Jan '10 - 11:20pm

    I’m still struggling with this issue. Can anyone explain to me what actual harm is done to me by the inclusion of my DNA profile on a police database?

  • Malcolm Todd 15th Jan '10 - 12:36am

    I certainly don’t doubt that data can be misused, and this is something to guard against; but it’s reasonable to ask, in what way could this information realistically be abused? I have only the dimmest understanding of DNA, let alone DNA profiling; but I’m pretty sure that there’s some serious overestimates in the general perception of how much can be divined from a profile (which is not the same thing as a complete DNA sample – a separate issue). I couldn’t really see an explanation of that in Lynne’s piece.

    As for the rest of the arguments, they were mostly irrelevant, I think.

    For example, the overrepresentation of ethnic minorities among those on the database reflects (as Lynne comments) the disproportionate extent to which members of ethnic minorities are arrested in the first place. Being arrested is undoubtedly a harmful experience. Getting rid of the DNA profiles doesn’t change the harm or the disproportionate impact; keeping it doesn’t make it worse – unless there is harm arising from the existence of the profile per se.

    Another important point she makes is that DNA evidence as used in our courts is not necessarily as reliable as people think. This is very likely true (an issue that’s come up on LDV before), but if so, it’s so whoever’s DNA profile you’ve got and however it was obtained. Dealing with it by removing “innocent people’s” DNA from the database just buries the issue, and leaves you still with the problem of dodgy evidence being used against so-called “guilty people” – i.e. people who were guilty of some completely different offence some time in the past. Reliability of the technique is too important an issue in itself to be sublimated into quite distinct issues.

    Finally, I don’t really believe in the argument of principle about “my information”. Information doesn’t belong to you, even if it’s about you. Lots of people, some official some not, know lots of things about me, with or without my participation or permission. So long as it is scattered in different places, gathered in legitimate ways for legitimate purposes, and not assembled into a master file of everything there is to know about me, I don’t consider that a meaningful threat. This aspect – which sometimes seem to be the one people care about most – seems to me like a modern equivalent of the fear of letting someone know your name, with the magical power over you that it contained.

  • Liberal Neil 15th Jan '10 - 1:09am

    From a report by the Human Genetics Commission (the watchdog for these things):

    “The report received testimony from one senior police source, a retired chief superintendent, who said it was “the norm” for officers to arrest someone to obtain their DNA profile.

    “It is apparently understood by serving police officers that one of the reasons, if not the reason, for the change in practice is so that the DNA of the offender can be obtained,” said the source, whose identity has been kept secret. “It matters not whether the arrest leads to no action, a caution or a charge, because the DNA is kept anyway.“

  • Malcolm Todd 15th Jan '10 - 10:01am

    If true, that would indeed be the beginnings of a good reason to stop this practice! Questions remain (assuming for the sake of argument that it is in truth a widespread practice):
    What is this DNA-gathering being done for? Is it to get DNA to run against existing investigations, or in order to build up a database for speculative use?
    And does this mean that Police are hauling people in off the streets who wouldn’t otherwise be brought in, or just that people who would in the past have been invited to “help with enquiries” at the police station are now being formally arrested? If the latter, what impact if any does that have on the person arrested?

  • Andrew Suffield 17th Jan '10 - 6:22am

    If you want a realistic suggestion for how this information could be abused, make sure you haven’t eaten recently and then let us suppose that the BNP managed to take control of the government.

    Paternity tests are straightforward with the current database, so they can build up a graph of ancestry. When they manage to identify an individual whose immigration papers were not in order, it becomes straightforward to track down all their descendants and deport them.

    By enhancing the method used to process samples, people can be checked for specific genetic traits. It is straightforward to determine who is an “indigenous Caucasian”, and hence eligible for party membership. More subtly, the markers which indicate a predisposition towards homosexuality can be checked (researchers have strong evidence they exist, so it wouldn’t be hard to isolate which genes are responsible).

    We know that governments like this can be elected, because it’s happened in Europe several times. You should not be asking what actual harm is done by the inclusion of your DNA profile in the database. You should be asking what harm could be done with that information in the future.

    In the case of convicted criminals, you can make an argument that retaining their profile until their conviction is ‘spent’ has benefits that outweigh the risks, given the high probability of re-offending. In the case of innocent people, it is hard to find any benefits from storing their profiles.

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