Sat, Feb 28, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Britain looking to keep DNA of innocents on file


The British government is planning to get around a European court ruling that condemned the UK’s retention of the DNA profiles of more than 800,000 innocent people by keeping the original samples used to create the database.

A damning ruling last December criticized the “blanket and indiscriminate nature” of the UK’s current DNA database — which includes DNA from those never charged with an offense — and said the government had overstepped acceptable limits of storing data for crime detection.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said last month that she would publish a white paper setting out “a more proportionate, fair and commonsense approach,” but she has not given any indication whether DNA samples already obtained would be destroyed.

However, Home Office sources said the government, which was given three months to respond to the ruling, has “no plans” to destroy samples of DNA.

The revelation raises questions about the extent of the government’s response to the court’s findings and prompted fresh criticism on Thursday night of its “surveillance state” ambitions.

The Guardian revealed earlier this week the scale of government plans to mine data on innocent citizens from public and private databases in order to enhance the fight against terrorism.

Writing in yesterday’s Guardian, Justice Secretary Jack Straw accepts he must climb down on a controversial clause in the coroners’ and justice bill, which civil liberties critics have warned is too vague and widely drawn. Straw admits there are “justifiable concerns” that personal data — from medical records to the identity card register — could be used for purposes far removed from their original intention.

The concerns over handling DNA samples come as the Home Office has set out amendments to the police and crime bill which would give the home secretary power to make new regulations about the retention of DNA, without further parliamentary scrutiny.

Experts believe the government will respond to the European court by reforming the database using the Scottish model, where DNA is not retained from innocent people except in cases of arrest over sexual and violent offences.

The shadow Home Office minister James Brokenshire criticized the government for attempting to take more control over DNA retention at a time when the European court was expressing concern over Britain’s appetite for expansion.

Since its foundation in 1995, the database has become the world’s largest. Of its 5 million entries, more than a million are children and 857,000 are innocent people.

Home Office and police sources have said measures are under way to collect stronger evidence of how the database is used to solve crime. The measures come after the court said it would need “weighty reasons” before it would accept the current scale of the database, and raise concerns that the government may seek to overturn the findings by showing the current scale of the database has played a role in solving crime.

Any attempts to retain the DNA samples already taken are likely to meet with vigorous protests from civil liberties groups.

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