Britain to erase DNA data

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(Image: Spanish Flea, Creative Commons)

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The UK's police-collected DNA database is one of the biggest in the world, and contains genetic information on felons, but also the DNA of close to a million innocent people. Too many, according to the European Court for Human Rights. So Britain's datase is set to shrink, just as US authorities are moving to expand their DNA records.

Laura Lynch reports for "The World."

DNA -- a powerful tool for investigators around the world -- has been very, very popular with police in Britain. Time was, they only held on to DNA from crime scenes or from convicted criminals; but four years ago, police started collecting samples from anyone arrested for any offense, even if they were later released or found not guilty, their DNA stayed in the computer banks and it stayed in there indefinitely. But now Britain is changing its practices, forced to by the courts.

Still, it's less than a wholesale change -- police will still hold on to records of those who aren't convicted, just not forever. Instead, it's planning to keep records of those charged with serious or violent crime for a dozen years; the rest for six years.

Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker says it strikes the right balance: "Well we certainly do need to do what we do, because at the end of the day, by keeping the DNA of people who are arrested in the proportionate way that we're proposing it will ensure as we've already seen, that murders who would escape justice, rapists who would escape justice, and seriously violently offenders who would escape justice are actually brought to justice.

But some say the government solution is way out of proportion -- there are about 850,000 innocent people who still have their DNA stored in the database.

Opposition critic Chris Hune can’t see any justification for keeping them there: "It's not effective, we know that the number of crimes being solved with DNA is falling despite the increase in the number of people in the DNA database; and frankly it offends the fundamental principle of British justice, which is you are innocent until proven guilty."

Comedian and activist Mark Thomas was caught up in the DNA net when he was arrested for allegedly causing criminal damage after locking himself to a bus as part of an anti-war protest. He was acquitted, but had to fight to have his record remove from the database: "I think the issue here is they've created a subcategory of innocent-ish; you're either innocent or you're guilty, but now they've created this subcategory of sort-of innocent."

Even as the British government is staring down the courts and civil rights campaigners, it may find that it has fans across the Atlantic. Just last month, the FBI changed its own DNA practices, adding to its database of genetic materials from convicted criminals, it's now collecting DNA samples from people awaiting trial, and obtained immigrants.

Sociology Professor Harry Levine, of City University of New York, has tracked policing trends. Levine says the UK leads the world when it comes to collecting and storing DNA. He believes US police forces will cheer Britain’s determination to hang onto the data of the innocent, in spite of the court’s ruling: "And so the impact of the UK will simply, I think, probably fortify if anything the efforts in the United States to increase the DNA collection of people who are just arrested."

But the US may yet claim the title of DNA database champions. Human rights groups in Britain say they’re ready to challenge the government’s new policy all over again, suggesting this isn't the end of debate about balancing the protection of the public with people's right to privacy.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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