Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Senior UK judge wants everyone on DNA database for fairness reasons

One of the United Kingdom's most senior judges, Lord Justice Sedley, today demanded that every UK resident and every visitor to the country should have their DNA recorded on the national DNA database (see, respectively, the BBC news website, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, and the Daily Telegraph on this).

Sir Stephen Sedley, a senior appeal court judge, described the current system as "indefensible" and argued that to fix it there were only two ways. Reducing the database could lead to serious offenders escaping conviction when they would otherwise have been brought to justice, so this would be "a disaster". Therefore, the only option was to expand the database to cover the whole population and all those who visit the UK. (The population is about 60 mio., and another 33 mio. visit the UK per year [see National Statistics website]).

The UK's national DNA database is already the world’s largest: Two years ago, in 2005, almost 3.5 mio samples were on that database – or 5.2 per cent of the overall population. Next year, the database is planned to cover 4.25 mio samples or 7.5 per cent of the population. (For comparison: The EU average is currently slightly above 1 per cent, and in the United States, the respective figure is 0.5 per cent. The UK, in other words, is literally miles ahead of other, similar countries in this area, holding the data of between 6 and 15 times as many of their citizens as other countries.)

Judge Sedley (who, interestingly, is also President of the British Institute of Human Rights) received a mix of criticism and support for his views. Home Office minister Tony McNulty said on the Today programme that he was "broadly sympathetic" to the judge's views which had "a real logic" to them; Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman, however, denied this morning that there were any plans to introduce a universal database; opposition politicians from the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives strongly criticised the idea. The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, warned that it raised serious issues around the criminal justice system: "if you get the knock on the door saying 'we’ve found your DNA’, you’ve got to start proving your innocence". And Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti called it "a chilling proposal, ripe for indignity, error and abuse".

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At 5/9/07 22:51, Blogger David French said...

The judge has logic on his side. Britain has the largest DNA database in the world covering 7.5% of the population. Mathematical techniques can extend the range of matching further by detecting relatives of people on the database. So the brits are well on their way to achieving the judge's goal.

However consider,

* Outside of CSI and similar TV programs, how many crimes are solved through DNA matching? Is there a reasonable value proposition to extend this collection because of the current success rate?

* How often is unknown DNA (not on match database) available as a pointer to an otherwise unknown perpetrator?

My guess is that a universal DNA database (relatively simple to achieve by diverting sample collected at birth) does not add much to detection or prevention of crime because there is generally a small set of persons of interest around a particular crime not the whole population.

At 19/10/08 02:27, Blogger JohnLloydScharf said...

BRITAIN does NOT have the world's largest DNA database in groos numbers or by percentage of population.

At 25/8/09 06:04, Anonymous RÃ¥dgivende ingeniørfirma said...

This a very nice article and its very interesting. Because it shows that being a judge you need to be fair in your judgment to every cases that you have been judging.


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