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25 April 2005updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

A simple prank by a 13-year-old. Now her genetic records are on the National DNA Database for ever

Britain commands greater powers than any other state to obtain, use and store genetic information. R

By Tom Wall

Two months ago, a 13-year-old schoolgirl was arrested in Ashford, Kent for throwing a snowball at a police car. It was reported in the national and local press, but not one journalist chose to focus on the most disturbing aspect of the incident: she was DNA-swabbed and her details were added to the National DNA Database. Unlike her ticking-off or public humiliation, this mark against her name will remain indefinitely on a mainframe somewhere in the Forensic Science Service.

The UK National DNA Database is the world’s most extensive genetic record of criminal suspects. It holds the genetic profiles of millions of convicted criminals, but also those of many innocent people. Even if the schoolgirl had been released without charge or cleared in court, her sample would have been retained for the rest of her life, and probably beyond. No other database has been granted such scope. No other state has that kind of freedom to obtain, use and store genetic information.

Over the past five years, the database has expanded from 750,000 profiles to 2.9 million, thanks to a £182.6m investment programme. Another £58m is due this year. The Home Office claims it is a vital weapon in the fight against crime: one which, it hopes, will one day cover the entire population of those who are criminally active. But could it be abused by unscrupulous governments? Dr Helen Wallace of GeneWatch UK, the genetic rights group, fears it could be used to refuse people certain types of employment, restrict travel or even track down undesirable individuals. She is quick to point out that communist and fascist states used personal records to persecute their enemies, but insists her concern “is not so much that there is going to be some kind of police state tomorrow, but the creeping erosion of people’s rights”.

Since the database was established in 1995, the laws governing the taking and storage of genetic samples have been progressively relaxed. In 2001, police in the UK were given the power to retain all samples indefinitely, irrespective of guilt or innocence. In 2004, the police were given the power to take samples from anyone arrested in connection with a recordable offence. Soon they will be able to take DNA samples from a new section of the population, as the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 will make all offences arrestable. People who are suspected of committing the most minor crimes – speeding or littering, for example – could be forced to hand over genetic material.

The issue goes to the very heart of our democracy: it is the right of law-abiding citizens to go about their business unmolested by the state. They also have the right to genetic privacy; we should not forget that DNA samples can reveal family relationships and inherited diseases. And yet the silence from newspaper pundits and prominent politicians is deafening. This troubles civil rights groups such as Liberty, which says: “If we are going to have a universal DNA database we need to have an honest and open debate – instead of constantly pushing back the boundaries.”

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Other countries have been more cautious. Sweden keeps on its database only criminals who have spent more than two years in prison. Norway keeps only serious offenders (a court order is also required). Germany keeps only individuals convicted of certain specific offences and deemed likely to reoffend (again, a court order is also required). Even the United States places more res-trictions on its DNA database: all US states add the profiles of violent offenders, and a few add the profiles of suspects.

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Yet the power of the British state to monitor its citizens is likely to grow further over the next ten years. More databases are being planned and developed; they include the new National Health Service electronic care record service and the National Identity Register, to support the introduction of ID cards. It is not yet clear under what circumstances the police will be given access to these databases. Nor is it clear whether the databases will be linked. The Identity Cards Bill certainly leaves open the possibility of including arrest and DNA reference numbers. The Home Office told me discussions were already under way about adding NHS numbers to the register.

The national DNA database is currently managed and supervised by the Forensic Science Service. The custodian of the database, Dr Bob Bramley, acknowledges the concerns of civil rights groups, but insists it is safe from abuse: “The database can be used for only three purposes: prevention and detection of crime, investigation of an offence, and conduct of a prosecution. Of course a new government could change the legislation, but I can’t foresee any government wanting to ruin what has become an extremely valuable facility in the investigation of crime.”

But why include innocent people’s details? Bramley argues that the practice is proportionate because it has helped catch dangerous criminals. Since the law changed in 2001, the Forensic Science Service has taken 190,000 profiles from people either acquitted or not prosecuted. “Of those,” says Bramley, “nearly 7,000 have subsequently been identified in matches with unsolved crimes, including 60 murders, 35 attempted murders, 105 rapes, 43 sexual offences, 70 aggravated burglaries, 67 drugs offences and a number of serious assaults. Although not all these people were prosecuted or convicted, a significant number have gone on to be involved in other crimes.”

Helen Wallace of GeneWatch contends it is not proportionate, because it has so far potentially deprived 183,000 innocent people of their civil rights and genetic privacy. Moreover, she suggests it is rather like searching every bag outside every shop – likely to catch a few shoplifters, but also likely to deprive many more shoppers of their liberty. Nor is there any evidence to suggest these 7,000 offenders would not have been caught anyway.

Behind all these debates looms the impending part-privatisation of the Forensic Science Service. The Home Office plans to turn it into a government-owned company, and then – in all likelihood – a public-private partnership. Bramley, who is overseeing the changes, told me: “The operation and management of the database will be contracted out initially to the FSS, but then it will go out to tender and other people can do that job, under the supervision of the custodian [the Home Office].”

This appears to contradict Home Office assurances that the database will remain wholly in the public sector and access be strictly controlled. Many experts – such as Dr Steve Bain of the Human Genetics Commission, who is also a national database board member – find the prospect of private firms running the database deeply troubling, as private interests do not necessarily coincide with public interests. Besides, the more bodies come into contact with the database, the greater the potential for leaks and misuse. Instead of privatising its management, the argument goes, we should carry out an independent review to establish its proper scope. Genetic privacy can be protected without compromising crime reduction. GeneWatch UK says innocent people should be added only if they are arrested in connection with a serious sexual or violent crime and that profiles and samples should be destroyed after a fixed period, unless they relate to serious crimes.

Unless we are careful, we may wake one morning to discover it is not just snowball-throwing teenagers on the database, but every single one of us.