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Leicester 2002 Thursday, 12 September, 2002, 05:05 GMT 06:05 UK
Privacy fears over DNA database
The inventor of DNA fingerprinting has launched an outspoken attack on the way the genetic profiles of suspects in the UK who have been cleared of any crime are still stored by the authorities.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys said the practice was highly discriminatory and measures should be taken to safeguard against particular individuals or groups being targeted.

And he called for the creation of a national database, storing the profiles of the entire UK population, which would be managed by an independent body.

"If we're all on the database, we're all in exactly the same boat - the issue of discrimination disappears," he said.

The scientist made his comments at the British Association's science festival in Leicester.

Radical solution

Professor Jeffreys discovered the DNA fingerprinting technique by accident 18 years ago.

It has revolutionised crime-fighting, but he now believes that the practice of storing the genetic profiles of suspects who have not been found guilty of a crime is a step too far.

His radical solution is a national DNA database from the entire population held by a specially created body.

And he says it would only ever record those parts of a DNA profile that identify an individual, not the parts providing information about someone's appearance, or their susceptibility to disease.

It is likely that in the future the possibility of gleaning such information from DNA will increase.

'Arguable proposition'

Professor Jeffreys told the BBC: "With the current DNA database of criminals, there's been a recent extension to include suspects who've been convicted of no crime at all - I think on the assumption that at some stage in the future these people may commit a criminal offence.

"In my view that is discriminatory.

"My other concern is that some forensic scientists are now beginning to look for physical characteristics; genetic determinates of hair and eye colour, ethnic group as well - to get some indication of the physical appearance of a person where you have no clear suspect.

"The use of this sort of very private genetic information by the police does fill me with very considerable concern."

Three million target

More than 1.5 million DNA profiles are now held on the 187m National DNA Database (NDNAD) and the target is to have about three million profiles stored by April 2004.

Home Office figures show that every week about 1,600 DNA matches are made either connecting a suspect to a crime scene or linking crime scenes together.

Police see the resource as a valuable asset in the fight against crime.

But critics, including human rights group Liberty, have criticised the "appalling" practice of keeping samples from people who have not been convicted.

And some scientists have warned that as the database grows the chances of two very similar profiles from two different people emerging increases.

Great value

The NDNAD is run by the Forensic Science Service (FSS). It stressed on Thursday that the profiles held on file are not used for any purpose other than the investigation of crime and do not contain information about a person's appearance or health.

Custodian of the database Dr Bob Bramley said: "We are loading more and more profiles from individuals on to the National DNA Database and its value is increasing accordingly.

"It is now recognised by the police as one of their most powerful intelligence tools."

A spokesperson from the FSS added that the chance of finding two full DNA profiles which appear the same but are not actually from the same person is possible, but very slim.

"But we are very aware of this; it is not something we have not considered," he told the BBC.

The BBC's Pallab Ghosh
"Many civil liberties groups are concerned that the safe guards won't be strong enough"
Sir Alec Jeffreys
"The [DNA] database must not be used as a conviction or prosecution tool"
BA science festival at Leicester University.

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See also:

19 Jan 01 | UK
10 Oct 01 | England
19 Jan 01 | Politics
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