Lecture 14: DNA databases

(version 3 March 2008)

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DNA data bases

A number of countries have DNA databases which store DNA profiles from convicted criminals, and (in many cases) simply individuals that have been arrested (but not convicted) of crimes. Such databases, while helpful in crime-fighting, raise a number of interesting privacy and legal issues.

The Denver DA's DNA webpage on recent legal decisions involving DNA database matches

CODIS -- the National USA database

CODIS = Combined DNA Index System

CODIS homepage

In late 1990, the FBI Laboratory began a pilot project with six state and local crime laboratories to develop software to support each lab's DNA testing and allow sharing of DNA profiles with other crime laboratories.

The DNA Identification Act of 1994 formally authorized the FBI to operate CODIS and set national standards for forensic DNA testing. TWGDAM (Technical Working. Group on DNA Analysis Methods) guidelines served as interim standards until recommendations were provided by a DNA Advisory Board required under the Act.

CODIS is not a criminal history database like the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). A record in the CODIS database, known as a CODIS profile, consists of a specimen identifier, an identifier for the laboratory responsible for the profile, and the results of the DNA analysis (known as the DNA profile). Other than the DNA profile, CODIS does not contain any personal identity information.

In its original form, CODIS consisted of two indexes: the Convicted Offender Index and the Forensic Index. The Convicted Offender Index contains profiles of individuals convicted of crimes; state law governs which specific crimes are eligible for CODIS. (All 50 states have passed DNA legislation authorization the collection of DNA profiles from convicted offenders for submission to CODIS.) The Forensic Index contains profiles developed from biological material found at crime-scenes.

In the past several years, CODIS has added several other indexes, including: an Arrestee Index, a Missing or Unidentified Persons Index, and a Missing Persons Reference Index.

CODIS databases exist at the local, state, and national levels. This tiered architecture allows crime laboratories to control their own data -- each laboratory decides which profiles it will share with the rest of the country. As of 2006, approximately 180 laboratories in all 50 states participate in CODIS. The national level, the National DNA Index System, or NDIS, is operated by the FBI at an undisclosed location.

As of May 2007, 177,870 forensic profiles and 4,582,516 offender profiles have been accumulated , making it the largest DNA databank in the world, surpassing the United Kingdom's National DNA Database, which consisted of an estimated 3,976,090 profiles as of June 2007. As of the same date, CODIS has produced over 49,400 matches to requests, assisting in more than 50,343 investigations.

The growing public approval of DNA databases has seen the creation and expansion of many states' own DNA databanks. California currently maintains the third largest DNA databank in the world (naturally, as CODIS contains all states' databank information). Political measures such as California Proposition 69 (2004), which increased the scope of the databank, have already met with a significant increase in numbers of investigations aided.

In order to decrease the number of irrelevant matches at NDIS, the Convicted Offender Index requires all 13 CODIS STRs to be present for a profile upload. Forensic profiles only require 10 of the STRs to be present for an upload.

Privacy Concerns

The CODIS database originally was only used to collect DNA of convicted sex offenders. Over time, this has expanded. Currently all fifty states have mandatory DNA collection from sex offenders and nearly 40 states from all convicted felons. Other states have gone further in collecting DNA samples from juveniles and all suspects arrested. In California, as a result of Proposition 69 in 2004, within five years, all suspects arrested for a felony, as well as some individuals convicted of misdemeanors will have their DNA collected. In addition to this, all members of the US Armed Services who are convicted at a Special Court Martial and above are ordered to provide DNA samples, even if their crime has no civilian equivalent (for example adultery).

Currently, the ACLU is concerned with the increased use of collecting DNA from arrested suspects rather than DNA testing for convicted felons. Along with the ACLU, civil libertarians oppose the use of a DNA database for privacy concerns as well as possible institutionalized discrimination policies in collection.

Is CODIS Dangerous?

Debate: Should the government be allowed to collect DNA samples from non-violent and non-convicted offenders?

California's Proposition 69

Passed in 2004.


UK National DNA database (from Wiki article)

History and Background

Gene watch summary of the legal history of NDNAD

The United Kingdom National DNA Database (NDNAD; officially the UK National Criminal Intelligence DNA Database)

NDNAD home page

The NDNAD only records a person's DNA profile (the SMG+ markers). However, individuals' DNA samples are also kept permanently linked to the database and hence it is possible to extract contain complete genetic information for these individuals.

This raise privacy concerns in that (in the future) your genomic sequence might be used to access your disease risk or other features, and potentially limit your access to health insurance.

Though initially only samples from convicted criminals, or people awaiting trial, were recorded, the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 allowed DNA to be retained from people charged with an offence, even if they were subsequently acquitted.

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 later allowed DNA to be taken on arrest, rather than on charge. Since April 2004, when this law came into force, anyone arrested in England and Wales on suspicion of involvement in any recordable offence (all except the most minor offences) has their DNA sample taken and stored in the database for 100 years, whether or not they are subsequently charged or convicted.

In 2005-06, 45,000 crimes were matched against records on the DNA Database; including 422 homicides (murders and manslaughters) and 645 rapes. However, not all these matches will have led to criminal convictions and some will be matches with innocent people who were at the crime scene. Critics argue that the decision to keep large numbers of innocent people on the database does not appear to have increased the likelihood of solving a crime using DNA.

Past and Current Legal Challenges

In November 2004 the Court of Appeal held that the keeping of samples from persons charged, yet not convicted, was lawful. However, an appeal is being made to the European Court of Human Rights.

The issue of taking fingerprints and a DNA sample was also involved in a case decided at the High Court on March 23, 2006. A teacher who was accused of assault won the right to have her DNA sample and fingerprints destroyed. They had been taken while she was in custody, but after the Crown Prosecution Service had decided to not pursue any charges against her. She should have been released expediently once this was the case and so her continued detention to obtain samples was unlawful, and thus the samples were taken "without appropriate authority". Had they been taken before the decision not to prosecute, the samples would have been lawful and retained as normal.

Census data and Home Office statistics indicate that almost 40% of black men have their DNA profile on the database compared to 13% of Asian men and 9% of white men.

All forensic service providers in the UK which meet the accredited standards can interact with the NDNAD. The UK's NDNAD is the foremost and largest forensic DNA database of its kind in the world -- containing 5.2% of the population, compared to 0.5% in the USA.

Issues and Privacy Concerns

The UK DNA database is the world's largest, and has prompted concerns from some quarters as to its scope and usage. Recordable offences include begging, being drunk and disorderly and taking part in an illegal demonstration.

Many innocent people including children from the age of ten are arrested but never charged with minor offences, some of which may later be proved to have been committed by another person.

Two cases where DNA cold hits solved cases

In February 2008 two men, in separate cases, were convicted of murder after being tracked down through use of DNA.

Serial killer Steve Wright was arrested when DNA from his victims matched a sample he had given following his arrest in 2003 for petty theft.

In another case, 18-year-old would-be model Sally Anne Bowman was found murdered. Nine months later, chef Mark Dixie was arrested for assault after a fight in a bar. His DNA was taken and linked him to the murder. Following Dixie's conviction, Detective Superintendent Stuart Cundy, who had led the Bowman investigation, said: "It is my opinion that a national DNA register with all its appropriate safeguards could have identified Sally Anne's murderer within 24 hours. Instead it took nearly nine months before Mark Dixie was identified, and almost two-and-a-half years for justice to be done."