05 March 2008

Past its sell-by data?

The British police's DNA database - the largest in the world - has recently been the focus of attention by both its supporters and opponents. At the same time as police have sung its praises for tracking down two murderers, two innocent people have gone to the European Courts to have their own details removed from among its 4.5million records.

Public support for a universal database, hosting the DNA profiles of all UK citizens, seems to vary from week to week, depending on the number of murderers caught versus the number of records mislaid by the government. This is reflected in the government's own apparent double-think on the issue: they maintain that a universal system would have "significant ethical issues", while simultaneously opposing the removal of innocent people's data from police files.

Those who hope such a database would be able to solve all future murders will probably be disappointed by a fact that has gone widely unreported. That the database itself is riddled with inaccuracies and duplications. Surprising as it may seem, when people are arrested, they sometimes lie to the police about their identity - but not before their DNA sequence is committed to record. If I were nicked for an offence and gave an acquaintance's name and address it would not only get me off the hook, but would leave me free to commit at least one offence at his or her expense.

Of course the error would soon be realised, but not before my associate had been banged up for a couple of hours. And, of course, have his own DNA profile added to the list for absolutely no reason. But as the Home Office says "They have nothing to fear from providing a sample". Nothing except the incompetence of the Home Office, of course.

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