The use of DNA samples for forensics purposes has been increasing as law enforcement in India are relying on DNA samples as a source of evidence to solve crimes. India currently does not have a legislation specifically regulating the collection, use, and storage of DNA samples for forensics purposes.
To address this gap, in 2007 a draft DNA Profiling Bill was created by the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics. In February 2012 a new draft of the bill from the department of biotechnology was been leaked. The draft Bill envisions creating state level DNA databases that will feed into a national level DNA database for the purposes of solving crime.
On September 27th the Centre for Internet and Society hosted a public talk at the Indian International Centre focused on the draft DNA Profiling Bill. Presenting at the meeting were international experts Dr. Helen Wallace director of GeneWatch UK and Jeremy Gruber president and executive director of the Council for Responsible Genetics US, and Dr. Anupuma Raina senior scientist at AIIMs.
Opening the meeting was a presentation by Dr. Anupama that focused on how DNA analysis has been used in various cases in India. Dr. Anupama emphasized the important role that DNA plays and the usefulness of the technology, but also cautioned that the police are still perfecting the use of DNA samples for forensic purposes. She promoted the passing of the DNA profiling bill with the correct safeguards. Dr. Anupama also provided insight into the current procedure for DNA analysis in India noting that consent is taken from individuals before taking DNA samples, and that ethical clearance is taken before DNA samples are taken and used for research purposes. She also noted that labs are working on improving quality insurance and emphasized the importance of chain of custody in ensuring that DNA samples are not contaminated.
Following Dr. Anupama, Jeremy Gruber spoke about the US experience with DNA databases and explained how DNA testing was initially introduced as a tool for establishing additional evidence for convicting violent felony offenders or freeing innocent individuals on a case to case basis. He explained how the technology of DNA sampling and its use in forensic cases can be both a useful tool when used justly and democratically, or can be harmful when used unjustly and undemocratically.
He noted that there has been an increase in the routine use and retention of DNA by law enforcement today for purposes such as using DNA databases for familial searching purposes, and using DNA analysis to create profiles of individuals. Concerns that Jeremy Gruber raised with respect to the draft DNA Profiling Bill included the assumption in the preamble of the bill that DNA is an infallible piece of evidence, pointing out that when DNA is used for forensic purposes it is vulnerable to inaccuracies such as false matches, sample contamination, and analysis error.
He also made the point that the definitions found in the bill are overly broad and work to expand the scope by defining a wide range of crimes for which individuals will be added to the DNA database for. These broad definitions essentially turn the database into an all crimes database. Other concerns with the bill included that DNA laboratories are not clearly independent of the police, and that the bill allows for the additional collection of DNA from missing persons and victims.
In her presentation, Dr. Helen Wallace described the UK experience, where the first DNA database was established in 1995. In 2000 a major expansion of the UK DNA database took place, but was controversial for a number of reasons. In 2008 the European Court of Justice ruled that the regime of retaining DNA samples in the UK was unlawful and a breach of privacy. Now the UK law requires that only a barcode with identifying information be stored. Dr. Wallace also emphasized the fact that the number of convictions resulting from DNA detections has not increased as the UK DNA database has expanded, because the number of solved crimes is driven by the number of crime scene samples.
Thus, samples on a database are only useful if they relate directly to the crime scene and a possible criminal. Therefore the more profiles that are added to the database that are related to petty crimes, civil cases, victims, volunteers etc. the less efficient and accurate the database becomes. Dr. Wallace recommended that a DNA database contain only careful crime scene evidence in order to ensure samples are matched accurately. Concerns with the DNA profiling Bill emphasized by Dr. Wallace included that consent is not provided for in the bill, and court orders are not required. Furthermore, the bill does contain a removal process, and it is unclear what DNA profiling system will be used.
Responding to the presentations made by the speakers, members of the audience raised concerns over the use of DNA sampling in India for reasons beyond forensic purposes, such as requiring surrogate mothers and the children to undergo DNA tests. Other members of the audience pointed out that the bill does not address the rights of suspects and prisoners. Additionally the question of the evidentiary weight of DNA samples in court was raised, along with the concern that the broad collection of DNA samples from individuals is just another example of the growing trend by the Indian government to collect and store information about its citizens.
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- Thousands of ex-offenders targeted in drive to add to DNA database (guardian.co.uk)