Is it ethical to have a national DNA database?

The National DNA Database has proved to be a valuable tool in the fight against crime. However, many people are concerned about how it has evolved from a database containing genetic information on convicted criminals to one that has information from a much wider group of people.

The UK National DNA Database holds the DNA profiles and relevant DNA samples from a select number of UK individuals. It is the largest database of its kind in the world and is continuing to grow each year. Every profile in the UK National DNA Database is derived from a sample of human material, such as saliva or hair, collected from a crime scene or police suspects.

However, many people are against the idea of extending the DNA database because of the potential threat it has to our privacy. While a DNA profile provides very little information about someone, their DNA sample contains information that can reveal their ethnicity or how susceptible they are to disease. The risk of data abuse is therefore potentially high.

In 2012, the UK Protection of Freedoms Bill aimed to redress the balance between the State’s duty to protect the public and an individual’s right to privacy. As a result of the bill, 1,766,000 DNA profiles taken from innocent adults and children were deleted from the database, along with 1,672,000 fingerprint records. In addition to this, 7,753,000 DNA samples (480,000 from children) containing sensitive personal biological material were destroyed.

However, two contentious issues still remain; how the database is put to use and how this is decided. The database can already be used for some genetic research studies and to identify partial matches, where close genetic relatives can be identified from the DNA profiles of relatives on the database.

As genetic databases become increasingly common in other countries (over 60 countries are now operating one) the sharing of data between international police forces is likely to increase. This may increase the vulnerability of databases to abuse and hacking. It also introduces the challenge of differences in the rules for holding data which vary greatly between different countries. Although one standard may apply in the UK, it may not apply elsewhere.

Below are some of the pros and cons of having a national DNA database. What do you think?

Is a national DNA database useful for police investigating crimes?

  • Yes
  • The information derived from each DNA profile can be a powerful tool in the fight against crime. If a match is made between a DNA profile at a crime scene and a DNA profile on the database, it can help police to identify a possible suspect quickly. They can then use this information as strong evidence to demonstrate an individual is guilty of a crime.
  • Searching the database to find a DNA profile match helps identify a suspect in around 60 per cent of cases in the UK.
  • Information can be shared between databases held in different countries to help identify criminals who commit crimes in more than one country.
  • It is easier to travel internationally enabling potential criminals to escape police and conviction. A DNA database may help to keep track of criminals around the world.
  • A DNA database of everyone may make it easier for police to identify missing people and unidentified remains.
  • No
  • There is little evidence to support that more crimes would be solved if a national DNA database is extended to contain samples from people who have not previously been convicted of a crime.
  • If a national DNA database contains more samples it may increase the possibility of false matches being made and innocent people being arrested.
  • Because samples are stored and compared against DNA collected at crime scenes, police may be more likely to pursue crimes committed by members of overrepresented groups. This may lead to discrimination while underrepresented groups may more easily evade detection.
  • If police can’t find a database match for DNA taken from a crime scene, they may then look at partial DNA matches. This could lead to innocent relatives of criminals being wrongfully pursued for a crime.

Does having a national DNA database help eliminate discrimination?

  • Yes
  • The 2012 UK Protection of Freedoms Bill addressed the fact that the details of many innocent people were held on the database. This resulted in 1,766,000 DNA profiles from innocent people being deleted from the UK national DNA database.
  • Extending a national DNA database to include the whole population could eliminate current ethnic and gender bias, for example, towards young, black men.
  • It would make solving crimes quicker and more accurate as forensic material from a crime scene could be automatically screened against information in the database to identify potential suspects.
  • No
  • At one time, the UK National DNA Database contained genetic information from around one million people who had not been convicted of a crime, and about half a million from juveniles. As a consequence, specific groups, such as young people and black men, made up an unequal number of those included on the UK National DNA Database.
  • Individuals on the DNA database may be seen as potential offenders rather than law abiding citizens. If the database is extended beyond just convicted criminals, everyone would be seen as possible suspects.
  • DNA records are linked to other computer records such as records of arrest, which can be used to refuse someone a visa or job. This opens up the potential for discrimination.

Is keeping a national DNA database financially viable?

  • Yes
  • The time and money saved through identifying suspects quickly through DNA evidence greatly outweighs the financial expense of keeping a DNA database.
  • Having a larger database that covers the whole population is far more useful and cost effective than a smaller one that only covers a small number of individuals.
  • No
  • Maintaining a DNA database is hugely expensive. The staff, facilities and equipment used to process and manage DNA samples costs large amounts of money.
  • Expanding the DNA database to include a DNA sample from everyone in the country would require a lot of additional investment of taxpayers money.

Do national DNA databases take into consideration an individual's human rights?

  • Yes
  • The Forensic Genetics Policy Initiative seeks to set international standards for DNA databases that respect and protect human rights.
  • We all have the right to live in a society free from crime.
  • No
  • Keeping a DNA database is seen by many as a further infringement of privacy and human rights.
  • It is debatable whether the benefits to society of having a national DNA database outweighs an individual's right to privacy.

Is the privacy of the individuals on a national DNA database protected?

  • Yes
  • Personal information is already held by groups in the private sector, if people can trust the private sector then they should be able to trust the Government.
  • In 2010, the UK Government pledged to make changes to the length of time DNA samples are kept in the UK National DNA Database. These were included in the 2012 Protection of Freedoms Act. These changes ensure that the DNA (and fingerprints) of individuals arrested but not convicted of an offence is retained for a maximum of 5 years. 
  • No
  • Individuals who provide their own personal information to the private sector, do so voluntarily and usually in exchange for a service. An individual has no choice on whether their DNA sample is included in a national DNA database.
  • Currently there are no comprehensive privacy regulations that would prevent governments from sharing DNA profiles with other groups, such as insurance companies.
  • DNA samples are rarely destroyed meaning that the information derived from a sample could potentially be accessed by anyone.
  • The information contained in DNA is limitless. Information about hair colour, eye colour and genetic diseases can all be found in our DNA.
  • Who owns the genetic information and who controls what happens to it and how it is used? Who is responsible for the genetic information isn’t clear and is a cause for concern for individuals who have records on the database.
  • The 2008 Counter-Terrorism Act allows security personnel to ‘biologically’ track and identify individuals.

Is appropriate consent given for the details of individuals to be used for other purposes?

  • Yes
  • The DNA Identification Act of 1994 explicitly allows database records to be made available for research and development as long as all personally identifiable information is removed.
  • No
  • Surely the DNA itself is personally identifiable information? We can find out all kinds of personal data, from eye colour to risk of genetic disease, from our DNA.
  • Requests to access the database may be for purposes for which the data was never originally intended and therefore individual consent has, almost certainly, not been given.
  • Searching the DNA database for partial matches raises concerns for the privacy of the relatives of people who are on the database.
  • There is the potential for the information in the DNA database to be misused by the Government, security services, police forces or criminals. For example, it may reveal private information, such as paternity.

Is DNA forensic evidence accurate?

  • Yes
  • To reduce the chance of errors, scientists test DNA profiles for more than one genetic marker. The more identical markers there are in two samples, the more accurate the test.
  • The chance that two unrelated people have identical DNA profiles is less than one in one billion.
  • The imperfection of DNA testing comes from the fact that only a small portion of DNA is tested. Therefore DNA testing is often allotted a small percentage of error. However, this does not prevent the results of DNA testing being considered reliable in a courtroom.
  • DNA profiling may be more objective and accurate than other forensic disciplines that rely on subjective judgments and interpretations.
  • The DNA database is not intended to replace conventional criminal investigations but to complement them by identifying potential suspects sooner.
  • No
  • Errors in DNA testing occur relatively frequently.
  • It has been suggested that as many as one in every hundred forensic tests performed on the DNA of suspected criminals may give a false result.
  • False matches between an individual’s DNA profile and a crime scene DNA profile can occur by chance. Poor laboratory practices can lead to cross-contamination or mislabelling of samples, and test results can be misinterpretated.
  • DNA can be damaged by environmental factors such as heat, sunlight and bacteria. This may affect the accuracy of tests carried out. 

This page was last updated on 2015-01-19