Police DNA Database Will Retain ‘Innocent’ Profiles

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Home Office minister James Brokenshire has admitted to broken promises of police DNA data erasure

A clash between privacy and uncredited personal data has placed the Information Commisioner’s Office (ICO) and the police at odds with government policy. The dispute centres on the DNA database compiled by the police to improve detection rates.

The coalition government asked the police to remove all profiles of innocent people from the national database but the police force’s interpretation appears to fall short of the coalition’s intentions.

Data Could Be Traced Back To Donors

Home Office minister James Brokenshire told a government committee that police forces will destroy actual DNA samples but retain innocent profiles as anonymised digital files. Brokenshire said he had won agreement from the information watchdog that the DNA profiles could be retained by forensic science laboratories.

The debate hinges around whether this information is truly anonymous because, though personal information is removed first, it retains the ID barcodes used by the police and the Forensic Science Service to track and recover the sample. Brokenshire admitted that “anonymised data” could be traced back to the donor but excused this on the grounds that it could not be used because “it would breach the Data Protection Act, and would not be accepted as evidence in a criminal investigation”.

Civil rights groups are outraged by the revelation and call it a U-turn in government policy. They argue that retaining the profiles at all is a breach of a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling that such practices are unlawful. The DNA database for England and Wales held over five million profiles with around one million having no link to a criminal conviction.

Since 2009, the successive governments have sought how to comply with the ECHR ruling. In Scotland, innocent profiles are immediately and completely destroyed and, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the government’s manifesto The Coalition: Our Programme For Government, stated: “We will adopt the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.”

“This is a disgraceful U-turn on the part of the government,” accused Daniel Hamilton, director of the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch. “It represents a betrayal of an explicit commitment made in the Coalition Agreement and stands in contravention of a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights banning the retention of innocent people’s DNA.

“Destroying physical DNA samples is a pointless gesture if the computer records are to be retained. Despite paying lip service to freedom and civil liberties, this government is fast proving itself to be every bit as illiberal as its predecessor,” he added.

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