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Proposed DNA database greatly expands scope of surveillance

A convict’s DNA information on the database also points to DNA information of innocent relatives
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First Published: Mon, Oct 01 2012. 09 57 PM IST
A nurse examines blood samples taken from volunteers and ready to be stored in the UK Biobank. Photo: Getty Images
A nurse examines blood samples taken from volunteers and ready to be stored in the UK Biobank. Photo: Getty Images
New Delhi: A new version of a draft law that proposed to set up a national DNA fingerprint database of criminals, including rapists, murderers and kidnappers, plans to substantially expand the type of offenders it covers to include people convicted of drunk driving and adultery.
The expanded list covers a host of offences including violations of the Motor Vehicles Act and dowry deaths, according to the ‘work-in-progress’ version of the draft reviewed by Mint. Mint has independently confirmed the authenticity of this version of the proposed legislation.
The proposed Indian database, or the National DNA databank, as it will be called, will consolidate DNA profiles from several state-level databases and maintain at least six different lists—an offenders index (that includes undertrials), suspects index, missing persons index, a crime scene index, unknown deceased persons’ index and a volunteers index. Only those who have been convicted of a crime will have their DNA profile permanently on the database. Missing persons subsequently found or suspects cleared of an investigation will be removed from the list after a court orders the manager of a DNA database bank to do so.
While currently the government consolidates some biological information about convicts, including fingerprints, in a centralized database, a database of DNA information opens up several ethical issues around privacy.
DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid encodes information of a person’s genes. While analysing this can reveal information on a person’s medical history, parentage and propensity to diseases, forensic experts say DNA-related information collected from a crime scene is quite useless for gleaning a person’s medical history.
“There are 17 sites or locations along the DNA strand that, together, we use to identify a person,” said J. Gowrishankar, director, Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, Hyderabad, and one of the scientists involved with the creation of the database. “However, none of these locations reveal anything about a person’s medical history. They are as neutral as fingerprints.”
He added that the chances of two people matching all 17 points are one in a 100 trillion. “That’s many times less than the world’s population, and hence a useful, neutral, unique identifier,” said Gowrishankar.
Apart from its uniqueness as an identifier, DNA can be accessed from a wide range of biological samples such as hair, semen, saliva, dead skin cells unlike fingerprints which are harder to find, according to Gowrishankar.
Yet embedded in its usefulness lies its potential propensity to invade a person’s privacy. Exactly 50% of one’s genetic information is shared with a parent or progeny, and between 25% and 90% with a sibling. Thus a convict’s DNA information on the database also points to DNA information of innocent relatives and family.
“That’s one of the big concerns that we are trying to address. If there’s a 90% match between two fingerprint samples, it tells you nothing about the relationship between two people,” said Gowrishankar. “A similar match between two DNA samples, however, is a potential lead. Would it then be ethical for us to share that information with investigating agencies?”
Then there’s the chance that innocent people who just happened to be in the vicinity of a crime find themselves on the database without their knowledge or consent. “Unfortunately, DNA evidence doesn’t say what time a person was present,” said Gowrishankar. Thus, technically, unless an investigation is closed or a case is solved, people can without their knowledge be on the ‘suspects’ list.
Helen Wallace of GeneWatch, a UK-based advocacy group that’s been critical of maintaining DNA databases, says that it is the potential for false leads—generated by such instances—that undermines the utility of a DNA database. “In the UK, for instance, there have been instances when police relied more on the DNA database rather than properly matching DNA from a crime scene, with suspects samples and that actually delayed the culprit from being apprehended,” said Wallace. “Moreover, even doubling the size of the DNA database hasn’t led to an increase in the number of convictions in the UK.”
Jeremy Gruber, President at the US-based Council for Responsible Genetics, said the Indian database was problematic because rather than crime-solving, it would be just be a Big Brother surveillance tool.
“No other country in the world mixes their law enforcement database with databases of innocent individuals in this way. Indeed, since very few crimes actually involve DNA, its collection for crimes for which DNA evidence isn’t relevant serves no safety purpose—it’s primary purpose is surveillance,” he said in an email.
The UK and the US have the largest such DNA databases in the world with roughly 3 million entries in each. A recent amendment to the UK’s Protection of Freedoms Act will lead to the deletion of at least a million profiles from the database, mainly on the grounds that these are profiles of innocents, said Wallace.
Unlike in many countries where DNA samples of suspects who are later found innocent are destroyed, the Indian database will maintain all physical samples indefinitely. “Our law is currently clear that body and tissue samples will be physically retained. We have to maintain that in case of a re-opened investigation,” said Gowrishankar.
Other officials, however, say that much debate is needed before the Bill is brought before the Union Cabinet, a prelude to being debated and passed by Parliament.
“For a while, it was with the home ministry, but now the department of biotechnology has been entrusted with the provisions of the Bill and now there have been some concerns—especially on privacy— by members of the Planning Commission,” said M.K. Bhan, secretary of the department of biotechnology. The latest version of the Bill has been cleared by the law ministry although Gowrishankar, who’s part of the department of biotechnology panel drafting the Bill, added that he was unaware of the expanded list of crimes covered by the database.
“There’s a lot more discussion that’s needed on that,” he said.
An independent expert said that while she favours a national database, it would be useful and effective only if policemen and crime scene experts were sufficiently trained to properly collect and store DNA samples before they are submitted to laboratories for analysis.
“There have been so many instances where the police have requested me to analyse samples, but they’ve not followed even the basics of preserving biological samples,” said Anupama Raina, a forensics expert at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi. “If collection is improper, a DNA database would be ineffective.”
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First Published: Mon, Oct 01 2012. 09 57 PM IST
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