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If You’re Not a Criminal, You’ve Got Nothing to Worry About

Image of crime scene

Over-reliance on DNA profiles in crime investigation is just one facet of a growing acceptance of genetic determinism – the assumption that we are our DNA. Credit: Jamie Tufrey

By Michael Cook

When the DNA profiles of innocent people are kept by law enforcement agencies it places them at risk of a lifetime of genetic surveillance.

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

One of the longest-running TV shows in the US is America’s Most Wanted, a reality show that gets viewers to dob in murderers, rapists and child molesters. To date, it claims to have fingered 1110 criminals.

Such is its popularity that in March host John Walsh celebrated the 1000th episode at the White House. President Obama used to be a law lecturer, but it didn’t take much arm-twisting to get his personal backing to taking and retaining DNA samples from individuals arrested for a crime but not convicted. “No different than fingerprinting or a booking photo,” said Walsh, and Obama nodded sagely and replied: "It's the right thing to do".

But is it? Experts on human rights say no.

The European Court of Human Rights may have slowed down Britain’s rapid move to almost-universal DNA profiling. In a 2008 judgement it found that indefinite retention of DNA samples from everyone who is arrested, regardless of their age or guilt, was a violation of a basic right to privacy.

The database in the UK includes more than five million DNA profiles, and one-fifth of these come from people without a criminal record. However, the government has been reluctant to destroy profiles because police and the public feel that DNA records are vital to putting criminals behind bars. The argument is that if you’re not a crim, you’ve got nothing to worry about.

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The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.