DNA databank proposal raises privacy concerns

Crime-solving benefits aside, some say the challenge for a national DNA database would be to not infringe on citizens' rights.

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ABU DHABI // The idea that a DNA sample of every resident in the UAE could be collected and stored by the Government has met with wary responses from some officials, attorneys and residents. While they acknowledge the crime-solving benefits of a national DNA database, they think a rigorous process would be needed to ensure privacy.

Members of various police forces met on Wednesday in Sharjah to discuss the implications of such a database. If the vision of the DNA Working Group materialises, the UAE could be the first country in the world to collect samples from all its residents. "On the surface it seems there would be a lot of legal challenges to such a programme, more than just privacy laws," said Ali Alabadi, a prominent Emirati lawyer in the capital.

"When we look at the positives alone, the programme seems very positive in solving crime and aiding search and rescue. The challenges are how will we gather this information and protect it from misuse. - Will this information be shared with other countries and law enforcement agencies or just the UAE? This would be a major concern for expatriates." If the DNA Working Group approved a nationwide database, the Minister of Interior would also have to give approval before the proposal would go before the Federal National Council (FNC) to receive the legislative stamp to become law. The process could take as long as a decade.

Dr Amal al Qubaisi, an FNC member from Abu Dhabi, said he asked Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, the Minister of Interior, about a nationwide database when Sheikh Saif visited the FNC last year. "I asked him why we don't have one yet. I do think this would be a great idea and I am happy to hear that there is progress. When it does come to the FNC, I have no doubts that it will pass," said Dr al Qubaisi. Asked about the privacy implications, Dr al Qubaisi replied, "It is no different from other private data the country collects. All the other data collected is also personal, so I think the issue is just legislating privacy laws to govern it."

While the working group has presented examples of how DNA can help solve crimes, the attorney Sayed Abu Zahraa, who specialises in privacy laws, said DNA alone is not a sure solution. "Just because they can find the DNA at a crime scene does not mean they will find the criminal," he said. "It is good law enforcement that catches criminals, not DNA matches." Mohammed al Subhan and his son Ali are 32 years apart in age but their views are identical. Like many Emiratis, they consider privacy a right, not a luxury.

"We value our privacy in this country," the senior Mr al Subhan, 64, said while sitting at a coffee shop in Marina Mall. "That is not what bothers me. So long as I am in public, I give up my right to privacy, but our home and our personal lives is what is private," he said. Having lived in London for many years and travelled to various countries, he said, "I can tell you that privacy is a bigger deal here than it is elsewhere. The difference is in how we define privacy. For us it is our family and home that is most private."

Ali al Subhan, like his father, values his privacy. "At this point it's not clear what the details of a DNA data bank will look like. I see there are some positives to solving crime, but I think we need to know how protected this information will be," he said. Samples as random as a single hair can link suspects to a crime scene. The DNA deoxyribonucleic acid found in such samples is unique in every individual and has revolutionised crime solving in many countries.

The United Kingdom's National DNA Database was the first programme of its kind. It was launched in 1995 and used for law enforcement purposes. In 2004, the British government expanded the mandate and made it possible for police to collect DNA samples from those arrested on suspicion as well as those convicted of crimes. The system received a blow in December when the European Court of Human Rights ruled unanimously against the British government in a case involving two of its citizens whose DNA profiles were retained even though they were not convicted of a crime.

The court said retaining records of innocent individuals violated the right to privacy outlined in Article 8 of the European Human Rights Convention. The two men had been acquitted eight years earlier. In addition, "the possibility created by DNA profiles for drawing inferences about ethnic origin made their retention all the more sensitive", the court said. It singled out England and Wales for their retention policies.

"The Court was struck by the blanket and indiscriminate nature of the power of retention in England and Wales", it ruled, adding that there was a "risk of stigmatisation" for innocent people on the database. The BBC reported in December 2008 that the number of people in the database had reached 4.5 million, with one out of five not having a current criminal record. New rules proposed in May to comply with the European Court's ruling would allow the government to maintain records of people over the age of 10 who were arrested for minor offences for six years, even if they were found innocent, whereas those arrested for sexual or violent crimes could remain on the database for 12 years, The Guardian reported.

France, New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Germany all have DNA database made up predominantly of convicts or accused. No country has implemented a national DNA database that profiles every resident, and whenever the concept has been considered, it has stirred controversy. In the US, the Federal Bureau of Investigation runs the Combined DNA Index System (Codis), which contains DNA profiles of people convicted of sex offences and other violent crimes. As of August it had over 7.3 million DNA profiles of convicted offenders.

myoussef@thenational.ae * With additional reporting from Kareem Shaheen