Thursday, 6 September 2007

A Universal DNA matching database?

Andreas Busch summarises developments in the DNA identification debate arising from
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 ...
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.

But as matching technology improves, what a great resource for control of the population at large ... no need for pesky ID cards, passports, fingerprints at airports ... just a bit of sweat or saliva as you pass myriad control points.

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"
If the British justice system has descended to that level then a dna database does not make much difference. There is a risk at present that relying on DNA for more than supporting evidence introduces the defence that other (unidentified) DNA indicates reasonable doubt that the identified person is the guilty party. It seems to me that the only clear benefit of a universal DNA database is to avoid such a defence.

As an aside, why stop at the border? why not share the DNA database worldwide and track fugitives as they supply dna at the border?

I think the debate lies outside the technology arena and more in the political and philosophical area. Do I have right not to be identified?

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