Portugal plans a forensic genetic database of its entire population - 1st Part -

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Written by Maria Joo Boavida   
Thursday, 07 April 2005

The recently elected portuguese government has just announced plans to create a DNA database to aid in fighting crime. The idea is worth applauding, as Portugal is one of the few countries in the EU (along with Spain and Italy) that does not yet possess such a useful mechanism for crime investigation. However, the government's plan is much more ambitious: Portugal is to be the world's first country with a DNA forensic profile of all its inhabitants. Despite the threats that such a universal system poses to citizens' liberties, the country does not seem alarmed enough. So far, there has been little public debate.
 Newropeans Magazine
The first DNA forensic database was implemented in 1995 in the UK. Ten years later, the application of genetics in the resolution of crime cases has achieved worldwide acceptance as a reliable means of identification and has had a major impact on criminal justice systems. DNA databases have been successfully used in criminal cases, in convicting criminals and exonerating innocents, in determining paternity, in tracing missing persons and identifying disaster and war dead. In 2002 an Interpol survey concluded that 41 of its 179 member countries already had implemented forensic DNA databases, and predicted that the percentage of members having DNA databases was to double in the near future.

In fact, in recent years, a large number of European countries have successfully introduced national databases holding DNA profiles from suspected and convicted criminals offenders as well as from biological stain materials from unsolved crime cases. Although such databases have proven extremely helpful in solving crime, the criteria for including a DNA profile in a database, as well as the rules that govern the access to or the removal of that data, still vary enormously from country to country.

The UK has the largest forensic DNA database in the world. In July 2004 it held over 2.5 million reference profiles and around 200,000 crime-scene profiles, and is projected to reach 5 million samples, around 10 percent of the population in the coming years. Since its creation there have been more than 550,000 matches between reference profiles and crime scenes and currently the probability of identifying a suspect when a crime-scene profile is checked against the DNA database is around 40%. The considerable size and success of the country's database is a direct result of the permissive rules for database entry: many samples are taken, with or without consent, from individuals arrested for offenses that could lead to a prison sentence, and the profiles are retained even from exonerated suspects.

Most other EU countries have set tougher legal restrictions which, albeit limiting the efficiency of the database, aim at assuring a greater protection of citizen's rights. For this reason, according to recent data, the total number of reference profiles in 7 EU countries' databases (Germany, France, Austria, Netherlands, Slovenia, Finland, Sweden) is only around 400,000.

There is a current trend for harmonization of forensic DNA databases, so that searching and sharing genetic profiles across EU countries is made easier. This drive is fueled by widespread concern with terrorism, transnational crime and the increase ease of the population mobility, both across the EU and into the more "permeable" states of the EU with the wider world. A range of organizations is thus currently involved in developing and promoting the standardization of technologies, quality requirements, proficiency tests and markers. In a wider scale, the WHO has affirmed the fundamental importance of international standards, which establish the precise conditions under which genetic databases can be introduced, kept, and made use of in an ethically acceptable way.

However, no country has yet attempted at implementing a universal DNA database for forensic purposes. In the UK, law enforcement authorities, have argued for the UK database to be extended to the entire population, but civil liberties groups strongly opposed such plan, due to the serious issues it raises in ethics and law.

What are the arguments for and against the implementation of a universal DNA profiling system for criminal investigation?

It is clear that for maximum efficiency in criminal investigation, the genetic fingerprinting of the greatest population span possible would be needed. A universal database could prove particularly useful for unsolved crimes. Furthermore, experience with the UK and US databases seems to indicate that minor criminals might also be perpetrators of more serious crimes. This fact, associated to the repetitive motif of some serious crimes helps support the use of DNA universal profiling in the prevention of crime. Such a system could also contribute to the reduction of crime, as it works as an additional deterrent to criminals.

It is frequently argued that the existing forensic databases are discriminatory, for some groups in the population tend to be over-represented among suspects. A universal DNA profiling system, managed by an independent body of experts is thus seen as the only system that can guarantee equality between citizens.

1st Part l2nd Part

Maria Joo Boavida
Paris (France)


Last Updated ( Thursday, 30 June 2005 )
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In memoriam
In memoriam
After a long battle against the disease Franck Biancheri passed away 30th of October 2012, at the age of 51. A great European, a militant democrat, a wonderful person.
Franck Biancheri was founder of AEGEE and founding fathers of the ERASMUS programme. He also was research director of the European thinktank LEAP 2020. In 2005, following the no of the Dutch and French to the Constitutional Treaty, Franck Biancheri founded the European citizens movement Newropeans.