DNA: Does the DNA database work?

Following the Marper case in the ECHR, the defeat of the Government, the House of Lords report on privacy, and finally the Governments decision on how to enforce the ECHR decision [retain DNA for up to 12 years], there has been a lot of speculation on the pros and cons of a DNA database, does it work, is it good? Does it cut crime? Below are some of the arguments for and against the DNA database.

Argument for the DNA database:

It works, it’s reliable, and it’s used the world over.

It takes seconds for a person to give a DNA sample, and it is hardly “intrusive” nothing more than a tooth brush is used.

The more DNA samples the government has the more crimes that can be detected. There are plenty of examples of individuals being convicted of crimes years after they committed that crime, and others.  Some of people were only caught after they were arrested for another crime, often a trivial one, e.g. driving without tax. If the police had not taken the DNA for such a small crime they would have never caught the offender. There is no reason for people not to be on a national DNA database, and only those who are criminals need to be concerned by this. 

The “human rights” of criminals are not as important as the rights of victims, potential victims, and the public in general.

Argument against the DNA database: (This argument is based, in part, on the assumption that there are finite resources and humans are fallible)

DNA is an impressive technology, and can solve crimes that traditional policing methods cannot; however mass DNA sampling does not work, in fact DNA sampling follows the laws of diminishing returns. The more DNA that is taken, the less useful it is, as the more likely it is that a false match is made. For example, if DNA is taken from a murder scene the DNA of the murder victim, the murderer, anybody who went to the scene will be there. If 100% of the population is on the DNA database, there is a 100% chance that, if there are 3 DNA samples at the murder scene, one will be a false match.

Then there is the cost. There is a significant cost to collecting and processing DNA from somebody, and the more that is collected the greater the costs. But the world’s largest DNA database will not detect a single crime by itself, it’s matching DNA at the scene which allows the detection of crime, and this also costs money. With finite resources it is, statistically, better to put the resources into DNA collection and sampling at the scene, rather than from collecting DNA from the whole population.

The idea that the DNA would not be misused by the government is optimistic, at best. The UK Government has already changed the law several times, to increase the DNA collection from only the guilty to anyone arrested, including the innocent.  The government loses and misuses data over and over again, it is highly likely that the DNA samples would be used for medical research, profiling, sold, lost or used illegally. It will also move between countries, so even those who trust the UK government, may not trust the US, Italian, or Turkish governments with their DNA profile.

There are already 4.5 million on the UK Nationla DNA samples on the database, making it the world’s largest. Yet the UK still has a far higher crime rate than coutnries with a tiny DNA database. Those who commit crime over and over again, e.g. those who have 200 plus convictions, have had their DNA taken many times, showing that the DNA database is not a deterrent. Collection of more samples, in addition to the 4.5 million will only significantly increase the amount of innocent people on the database, rather than the criminal population on the database. If more resources were put into DNA sample collection and processing at crime scenes then the current DNA database could be used more effectively, rather than growing it further and not using it effectively.

DNA sampling is not perfect, and errors are made. Humans, simply put, make mistakes. The more DNA is taken, the more errors there will be. Finally,  use DNA, use it wisely, and target the resources where they are most effective.

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