Government DNA Databases: Is your Privacy at Risk?

Written by on September 3, 2013 in Technology with 0 Comments

By Karl M McDonald

With genetic fingerprinting being used extensively for crime-solving, many governments are compiling vast databases containing the DNA profiles of many of their citizens in an attempt to curb crime and approximate a utopic world. Different countries have adopted different approaches with some countries only keeping records of convicted criminals whilst others opting for more ambitious, nation-wide databases that include the profiles and/or fingerprints of every citizen.

Why DNA?
Every person’s DNA is unique or so we are made to believe. However, this is not entirely correct and is somewhat misleading. In actual fact, scientists know that we share most of our DNA with our fellow human beings, irrespective of ethnic group or skin color. We also share a considerable amount of DNA with many animals including chimps (with which we share about 98%) and Zebra fish (with which we share around 85%). The difference in the amount of shared DNA from human to human is around 2% – this actually represents that percentage of your DNA that is unique to you. Despite this small figure, this 2% difference represents a percentage that is high enough to discriminate between individuals, helping us single out and identify specific people. Despite widespread use of DNA profiling to crime-solving the notion of national databases holding vast libraries of genetic data has drawn harsh criticism and worry.
The cause of this controversy is due to people fearing this as being the ultimate infringement of their privacy and working against protecting the rights of citizens. Those proponents of the system argue that a DNA database is an exceptionally effective crime deterrent and will augment the efficacy of criminal and terrorist investigations, increasing the chances of finding the perpetrator and hence, ultimately creating a safer place to live in.

The Prum Treaty
7 European countries have reached an agreement between them to share the information they have access to in their databases including fingerprints and DNA profiles; these countries include Germany, France and Luxembourg. Countries who have signed this agreement, known as the Prum treaty, can request that a government of another country, who has also agreed to the treaty, to get a particular individual’s profile or fingerprint and pass on that information to the country making the request. It is viewed as joint cross-border, patrol system aimed at reducing terrorism and other types of crime.
Britain has also opted to sign the treaty but chosen not to implement the measures and criteria outlined in the treaty; the country has been under increasing pressure and criticism from fellow EU member countries. In the USA, the compilation of DNA databases started as early as 1988 where convicted offender’s DNA profiles were added to the database. The system used by the FBI to code and store DNA profiles is referred to as CODIS (an acronym for Combined DNA Index System). CODIS is used both to aid in the identification of human remains as well as in missing persons cases, the genetic date of arrested individuals, DNA from crime scenes as well as those from rape kits.

Where is the problem?
People have some very legitimate worries that spill beyond the level of simple privacy and confidentiality issues. First and foremost, some studies carried out in the Netherlands, have found that the chances of false positive matches between DNA profiles from different people are not unusual. People may collect a forensic DNA sample from a crime scene, run a comparison with the DNA data in their database and confirm a match. The match they find may however, convict an entirely innocent person who happens to have an almost identical DNA profile. This means that a citizen from a country that has signed the treaty could receive a European Arrest warrant.

A case in point happened to a Liverpool man, Peter Hamkin, who was convicted of the murder of Italian Annalisa Vincenti. His DNA matched the DNA of the killer and the Italian government requested that Hamkin be extradited to Italy for trial. A second DNA test showed that Hamkin was not the murdered and in fact, entirely innocent.

Close relatives who have very similar DNA profiles with the perpetrator might also be implicated in the crime. Whilst this would most likely not lead to the conviction of the wrong person, it would still nevertheless, cause much anxiety and distress to the people involved.

Finally, DNA found at crime scenes is often very degraded due to chemical or environmental factors or quantities of DNA insufficient to provide a complete DNA profile. In this case, forensic experts and people involved in the investigations may choose to work with only partial DNA profiles which increase the risk or random matches with people. Other issues include “ethnic bias”, a fact which studies have already confirmed to be ingrained in the criminal justice system. Basically this term refers to the fact that when people from a given ethnic group form a larger percentage of the overall number of criminals, this fact will also be represented and reflected in the government DNA database. This in itself could lead to a high number of arrests of people within that ethnic group.

Insurance companies and Employers
Other people are concerned about potential employers, other government entities or even insurance companies getting access to their genetic information. Insurance companies would have a huge interest in confirming the genetic health of people requesting to be covered by health insurance; employers might also have interest in gaining information about potential employee’s physical health or even ethnicity and ancestry. Access to private information could affect the employability of the person applying for the job.

Could a world wide database be the solution to solving crime or will it create a paranoiac society in which any of us innocent citizens might become suspects in a serious crime?

Author Bio
Karl M McDonald is a specialist writer, namely writing about genetics and DNA testing and how this technology is a powerful tool with many modern day applications. The author does however, delve into a diversity of other topics including pregnancy, parenting and schooling. More articles by this author can be found in the article knowledge base for

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