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Friday, February 16, 2007

Common DNA

Today's Daily Telegraph is right to be sceptical about proposals to give Police across the European Union free access to Britain's DNA, fingerprint and car registration databases.

Apparently, the Home Office has agreed to a deal that will set up a network of national crime records across 27 states. All member states will have access to other countries' DNA and fingerprint data, as well as direct online access to vehicle registries. The exchanges could be up and running as early as next year and might eventually lead to the creation of a single Euro-wide database.

The problem is that not all the countries are operating the same standards of security, data protection or even have a common justice system, so that information held in Britain could suddenly become freely available elsewhere in Europe:

They also said British tourists fingerprinted in the UK as witnesses may find themselves sucked into foreign police investigations after innocently leaving prints, or DNA, at a location that later becomes a crime scene.

British police have millions of fingerprints on file – and this number will grow when they are taken for passport applications from 2009.

Britain also has by far the largest criminal DNA database in the world – 50 times the size of the French equivalent.

When Labour took office in 1997, it held only 700,000 samples. By next year, it will hold the samples of some 4.2 million people – seven per cent of the population – and is growing by about half a million a year.

The next largest DNA database in the EU is in Austria, where less than one per cent of the population is included. Coverage in Germany is half of that.

Britain gives its police greater freedom to obtain, use and store genetic information than other countries, who remove the profiles if the person is acquitted or not charged.

Civil liberties campaigners complain that the British database has effectively become a "permanent list of suspects". It includes at least 140,000 samples from people never charged with any offence.

The DNA from nearly one million juveniles has been added over the past decade.

Liberal Democrat MP, David Heath is quite right when he says: "While sharing information about convicted criminals is obviously helpful to crime prevention, it is quite another thing to be sharing information about innocent citizens, and worse still to be sharing it without the approval of either the UK or European parliaments."

Tory Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis also hits the nail on the head when he comments: "The decision to share broad categories of information across the enlarged EU is deeply troubling. The information includes personal data, it is not limited to criminals and there are no reliable means to guarantee the safeguards on the use of that information by criminals gangs or those not entitled to use that data."

"At a time when the Government's failure to ensure the proper registration of criminal convictions by British nationals in the EU is the subject of investigation, it is astonishing that ministers are proceeding with such a risky scheme without properly thinking through the consequences or debating it properly in Parliament."

DNA may well be valuable in detecting crime but there is an urgent need to purge databases of non-criminals and to get adequate safeguards into place across Europe before even considering this sort of sharing.
> The next largest DNA database in the EU is in Austria

... which, in our lifetime, had an elected neo-Nazi administration, and could do again.

- Frank Little
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