DNA pioneer appeals for cuts to criminal database

Sep 10, 2009 By JILL LAWLESS , Associated Press Writer
This is a Sept. 2004 file photo of British scientist Alec Jeffreys, the man who discovered DNA fingerprinting. Twenty-five years ago Thursday, British scientist Alec Jeffreys realized that individuals have "DNA fingerprints," unique patterns of genetic material that can be used to identify them. The discovery has solved thousands of crimes, put murderers behind bars, split and reunited families _ and launched a fierce debate about privacy and human rights. On the anniversary of his discovery, Jeffreys worried that police are using a database of DNA samples taken from suspects to brand innocent people "future criminals." (AP Photo/Rui Vieira/PA/file)

(AP) -- Like so many great discoveries, it was an accident. British scientist Alec Jeffreys realized 25 years ago Thursday that individuals have "DNA fingerprints," unique patterns of genetic material that can be used to identify them. The discovery has solved thousands of crimes, put murderers behind bars, split and reunited families - and launched a fierce debate about privacy and human rights.

On the anniversary of his discovery, Jeffreys worried that police are using a database of DNA samples taken from suspects to brand innocent people "future criminals."

Britain's is the largest in the world, containing genetic profiles of more than 5 million people. Samples are taken from everyone arrested for a crime - and the information is usually retained even if the person is acquitted or freed without charge.

Jeffreys, 59, said about 800,000 innocent people were on the database, raising fears of "discrimination, breach of genetic privacy, stigmatization - there's a whole host of issues here."

"Innocent people do not belong on that database," Jeffreys, a geneticist at the University of Leicester in central England, told the BBC. "Branding them as future criminals is not a proportionate response in the fight against crime."

British police can take DNA samples from anyone who is arrested, and keep the profiles even if the suspect is never charged - although the original blood, saliva or other is destroyed. The information is stored on one of the world's largest DNA databases, which was set up in 1995 and now holds information on 8 percent of the country's population. The FBI's national U.S. database, although larger, has information on about 0.5 percent of Americans.

Last year, the European Court of ruled that Britain's "blanket and indiscriminate" policy of retaining breached the right to privacy.

In response, Britain agreed to remove hundreds of thousands of innocent people from the database, but said it would still keep the profiles of those cleared of serious crimes for up to 12 years. Critics, including Jeffreys, say the decision flouts the spirit of the court ruling.

Jeffreys and his colleagues made their discovery by accident on the morning of Sept. 10, 1984, while researching inherited diseases. They developed a way of isolating bits of DNA and turning them into X-ray images. Looking at the first such images, from three members of one family, Jeffreys realized the individual patterns were different, but also that parent-child relationships could clearly be seen.

In effect they were genetic bar codes, maps of sequences within the strands of DNA that are unique to each individual - except identical twins, who share the same pattern.

"Within seconds it was obvious that we'd stumbled upon a DNA-based method not only for biological identification, but also for sorting out family relationships," he told the BBC. "It really was an extraordinary moment."

Within a couple of years the knowledge was being used to convict murderers and clear the wrongly accused, to identify the victims of war and settle paternity disputes.

It also proved that Dolly, the world's first cloned mammal, really was a genetic copy of another sheep.

The government says that last year DNA matches solved more than 17,000 crimes in Britain, including 83 killings and 184 rapes.

Jeffreys said the discovery - which brought him fame and, in 1994, a knighthood - showed that scientists must be given freedom to conduct research driven by nothing but curiosity. He said "unfettered, fundamental, curiosity-driven" research was just as important as science aimed at solving specific problems.

"I am saying you have to have a mixed economy," Jeffreys said in an interview released by the university to mark the anniversary of the discovery.

"You don't have to put all your eggs into this great common basket that will deliver answers to questions that you can define, because the far more exciting thing is that it delivers questions that you never knew existed - and that to me is infinitely more valuable because that sets the future agenda."

And what discovery would Jeffreys most like to see in the next 25 years?

"No-brainer," he said. "Extraterrestrial life. I would love to see that before I die."

©2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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THEY
5 / 5 (2) Sep 10, 2009
**"Innocent people do not belong on that database,"**

Why? What is wrong with your DNA being stored even if you are innocent? Years back I had to be fingerprinted for a high security job. I was told my fingerprints would be kept on file indefinitely with the FBI. So what. The only way it affects me is if I decide to become a criminal. Otherwise my prints just sit there in some computer database. The fact that I *DO* have my fingerprints on file with the FBI does not make me a criminal. The behavior would though!

Keep the DNA! It is a great resource.
defunctdiety
5 / 5 (2) Sep 10, 2009
They should absolutely keep the print, they absolutely should NOT keep the physical sample used to obtain the print.

The violation would be if they kept the sample, which could be planted on a scene or all kinds of horrible, unethical things...
Arkaleus
3 / 5 (2) Sep 10, 2009
Why? What is wrong with your email being stored even if you are innocent? Years back, all our emails were secretly captured and scanned by intelligence agencies, on grounds of national security. We were told that they would keep doing this indefinitely. So what? The only way it affects me if if I decide to become a criminal. Otherwise my emails just sit there in some computer database. The fact that I *DO* have my emails scanned by intelligence agencies does not make me a criminal. [Criminal] behavior would though!
Arkaleus
3 / 5 (2) Sep 10, 2009
Why? what is wrong with your 4th Amendment Rights being violated even if you are innocent? Years back, several rigths were violated when GW Bush decided to skull-f--k the Constitution. We were told it was so we could "win" the "war" on "terrorism." So what? The only way it affects me is if I decide to become a terrorist. Otherwise my files just sits there in some NSA database. The fact I *DO* have my rights violated does not make me a terrorist.
defunctdiety
5 / 5 (1) Sep 10, 2009
...what is wrong with your 4th Amendment Rights being violated even if you are innocent?

I'm a big fan of the Bill of Rights and I don't see there being a direct violation of the 4th in this. They store names, addresses, social security numbers, drivers license numbers, license plate numbers, thumb prints; DNA in this application is identification. There's no violation of privacy (in this application it's just as a part of your public identity) or autonomy. It's like a DUI stop point, a similar greater protection of society is not achievable by any other means, I think they should allow it.

Every time I purchase a firearm, it's tied to my identity and my identity to being a firearm owner, it's very likely if I'm ever pulled over I will be treated very differently than any other civilian, I've committed no crime, do I think that's wrong, no, I think it's reasonable and smart and serves to protect society, where no other means could in a similar way.
Sean_W
1 / 5 (1) Sep 10, 2009
If some innocent people have their DNA on file then everyone should. That way it would remove the temptation for cops to make dubious arrests among certain groups so as to have their DNA on file. And to minimize errors, the entire genome of every citizen should be saved as soon as memory and sequencing ability allow so that the data base can be searched and predictive arrests made.



But seriously, there is a lot of room for abuse here. It is common, in a world of countless police districts to hear of an instance of poor dicipline where cops use police resources to intimidate and extort. If some cop or sherif for that matter decides that he will use DNA swabs and a database to identify people who are not committing crimes but are doing something they want kept secret...



Oh, but then just live a good honest life and you will be fine you say? What if someone with power over you or your money doesn't? Your employer has an affair and suddenly your promotion goes to a cop's relative.
Nartoon
1 / 5 (1) Sep 11, 2009
Everyone should be DNA'd when they born.
Arkaleus
3 / 5 (2) Sep 12, 2009
Absolutely no one should ever be forced to provide their DNA to ANYONE unless they are suspected of some heinous felony and a judge has signed a due cause warrant to take a sample which is to be tested and then destroyed once the tests are complete.

The right to privacy and to live without interference from others, including those in government who think they own you, is a self-evident right of the American people.

Those in other countries who which to live under greater degrees of servitude and surrender are free to do as they like.