‘Give us your DNA’ – Panorama

“Isn’t it about time we put the whole country’s DNA on the database once and for all?” This is the central question posed in Give us your DNA, an episode of the BBC documentary Panorama. Since its creation in 1995, the Police National DNA Database (NDNAD) has provided the police with an exceptionally powerful tool to detect and prevent crime in the UK. However in both its creation and implementation the database has generated numerous contentious ethical issues such as infringement of civil liberties. With the assistance of personal accounts and expert commentary, this programme examined whether there is a strong argument in favour of putting every UK citizen onto NDNAD.

To demonstrate the efficacy of DNA as a forensic tool, the documentary presented two criminal investigations which utilised DNA evidence to successfully trace and then prosecute the offenders. The first of these examples is fragmented throughout the programme (00:01:20 – 00:02:50, 00:04:45 – 00:06:22, 00:16:23 – 00:18:50 and 00:26:05 – 00:28:11), and provides an insight into how the taking and retaining of DNA for minor offences can become extremely resourceful when solving more serious crimes, such as murder. It describes how a man was arrested and convicted for burglary via conventional policing methods in 1995, which resulted in his DNA subsequently being stored on the database. Seven years later in 2002, the same man committed another burglary, but was this time identified by the DNA evidence that he had left at the crime scene. Upon examination of the man’s apartment the police found a blood stained document. The DNA that was isolated from the document matched that of missing women, who was later found dead in a river near to where she lived. Collectively, and in combination with other evidence, DNA helped secure the conviction of this woman’s killer.

The second example “demonstrates the power of a universal database in action” (00:07:30 – 00:12:16). In a small town near Bristol, an 18 year old woman disappeared on Christmas Eve in 1995. Over the following days and weeks more than 10,000 people helped with the search to try and find her. Sadly, her body was found three weeks later in a remote area; she had been raped and murdered. The police quickly made the assumption that the perpetrator was a local man, with a good knowledge of the local area. Armed with DNA evidence left on the body, they initiated a ‘mass voluntary screen’ of over 4500 local men in the vicinity. This allowed them to eliminate people from the investigation, including the removal of suspicion from close friends and family. After fourteen months, the police eventually tracked a man who had twice evaded the voluntary DNA sampling and had moved to South Africa. His DNA matched the sample found on the murdered woman, and he was later convicted of her rape and murder.  As her father puts it, “DNA picked him out of the crowd and said ‘you were there”. On the basis of sad stories such as this, it is suggested that a universal DNA database would help police solve crimes much quicker.

In addition to the clips cited above, the programme provides a clear and concise explanation of the current laws permitting police to take and retain DNA samples in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (00:02:32 – 00:04:45). This section would be of particular use when teaching about the current status of the database and the procedures followed in the custody suite of a police station where a DNA sample is taken.

In the pursuit of an answer to the documentary’s main question, it unearthed several issues both ethical and practical which have, and may, serve to generate opposition towards the suggestion of a universal database. For example, as the UK law currently stands, anyone arrested for a recordable offence will have their DNA taken and kept on the database indefinitely. Therefore even if a person is not ultimately charged or convicted of a crime, their DNA remains on the database. This issue generates unease for some people since an individuals DNA can remain stored on the database even though, in the eyes of the law, they are in fact innocent. A short section (00:12:10 – 00:14:00) contains an interesting interview from a MSP from Scotland, who suggests “too many people have been sleep-walking into a situation which will be undermining fundamental civil liberties in England and Wales”.

The programme suggests that if the country was to adopt a universal database without proper debate and consultation then this would not only threaten civil liberties it could also cause substantial mistrust amongst the public (00:14:00 – 00:16:23). Tony Lake, Chief Constable of Lincolnshire Police and Chairman of the NDNAD Board, believes that the police have a duty to get the balance right since they presently “enjoy a very high degree of confidence by the public in the policing in this country… we tinker with that, at our peril”. This suggests that the relationship between the general public and police may become strained if policing policies became too personal too quickly. There is also the issue of whether the police can be trusted with such sensitive information; the programme tells the story of a man who had been wrongfully imprisoned for two and half years for an armed robbery he did not commit (00:23:38 – 00:24:26). The prosecution case against him was based on DNA evidence that had been planted on an item of clothing by an investigating detective.  

Further issues of trust are raised in the documentary.  For example, putting more people on the database will certainly solve more crimes but it will also produce more errors. Therefore the reliability of DNA evidence is questioned. The programme tells the story of a man who was wrongfully charged with a burglary 200 miles from his home (0018:50 – 00:22:00). It was proposed that his DNA had been found at the crime scene in Bolton and since his DNA was on the database from a previous domestic dispute some years previous, the investigation led to him. Three pieces of circumstantial evidence, however, ultimately proved his innocence: the man suffered from Parkinson’s disease and would not have had the physical capacity to climb through the broken window; his wife, who is also his full-time carer, was with him at their home on the date of the crime; and the man didn’t even know where Bolton was. Other individuals might not have been so fortunate in constructing an alibi, and this raises questions about both the reliability of the technology and the safeguards in place concerning DNA profiling. The programme provides an excellent discussion on the reliability of the DNA technology and admits, despite the mass of regulation already in place, that interpretation of the science can be susceptible to human error and is not, therefore, infallible (00:22:00 – 00:23:38).  

In its entirety this Panorama documentary provides an excellent and accurate description of the current status of the police National DNA Database. It also addresses several of the key contentious issues that surround the topic. The section from 00:14:00 – 00:24:2 would be a useful resource to help teach the bioethics of a universal database; it provides some good ethical arguments and would be of particular use as a discussion starter.

There is also a BioethicsBytes Extended Commentary that further exams the ethical issues found both in this programme and those that surround the NDNAD in England and Wales .

For additional information please refer to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics report on ‘The Forensic use of bioinformation: ethical issues’ and also the open debate on the You and Yours programme on BBC Radio 4 (25/09/07).

Give us your DNA was first broadcasted on Monday 24th September 2007 at 20:30pm on BBC 1 (TRILT identifier: 0071158D). It has been repeated since on Tuesday 25th September on BBC News 24 at 00:30am and 03:30am, Friday 28th September 2007 on BBC1 at 00:25am (TRILT Identifier: 00714FD3) and Saturday 29th September 2007 on BBC Northern Ireland at 01:35am (TRILT Identifier: 00714FD3).

7 Responses to ‘Give us your DNA’ – Panorama

  1. The recent collapse of the Omagh bombing case has brought the use of Low Copy Number DNA testing into question, see DNA test halted after Omagh case

  2. DNA fingerprinting pioneer Sir Alec Jeffreys has commented recently on the ethical problems associated with the retention of innocent people’s DNA on the police database, see Debating ethics of DNA database and Concerns over DNA of innocents on national database.

    He was also interviewed in December 2007 on the BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs. This conversation is not, unfortunately, available as an audio file but the following exchange between Alec Jeffreys (AJ) and the presenter Kirsty Young (KY) occurred 29 minutes into the programme:

    Kirsty Young: “Let’s talk about the DNA database. This is four million, four and a half million people now in Britain”
    Alec Jeffreys: “Four and a half million in the UK, five million in the US, more than twelve million worldwide”
    KY: “In Britain, it is certainly the case that you only have to be arrested, you don’t have to be charged or indeed found guilty of a crime to be and stay on the database. Are you comfortable with that?
    AJ: “No. What we now have, and this is really the only country in the world where this is true, we have England and Wales with this very large DNA database. That database, four and a half million people, hundreds and thousands of those are entirely innocent, they’ve never committed any crime whatsoever. It is very difficult for you to get your data profile off that database, even if you are innocent, and it will stay there until you are a hundred years old. Now the argument is, which I do not agree with at all, that is a proportionate response to the threat of crime. Now, if that’s true, then the police would be entirely entitled to go out onto the street and drag people in at random, why even bother arrest them, and we would never permit that.”
    KY: “But, of course there is an argument that is advanced to say that everybody should put their DNA on record, because if you haven’t done anything wrong you have nothing to fear from that, and indeed if it was your grandchild or my child or any of the people that we hold dear to us that are involved in a violent crime we would love to have access to everybody’s DNA to find out how they came to harm.”
    AJ: “There is a very delicate balance here between the notion of genetic privacy… that my DNA is mine, it’s not the property of the state. I’ve got no objections whatsoever to the national DNA database as a database of convicted criminals, its impact on the fight against crime has been colossal. But if we are going to extend that out to the entire population, not the police, it is only legislation that will draw clear boundaries as to what the police may or may not do. So, if you went down the road of putting everybody on the database, not the police database, I would see that as a quite separate database held by some independent agency. Possibly a database accumulated on a voluntary basis. Then how you interface the police database with this far more sensitive database, that’s a matter of debate.”
    KY: “So, in a sense, the law here – in your view – has a long way to go before it catch up with the science”
    AJ: “That’s always true, the science is racing ahead like crazy and the law is floundering around; it’s got to catch up.”

  3. […] controversial technology (at present in its association with the National DNA Database, featured in this BioethicsBytes post, though the programme’s interview with Jeffery’s highlights many more), Jeffery’s […]

  4. A Citizens’ Inquiry consisting of 30 members of the public has concluded that DNA profiles of innocent people should be removed from the national database

  5. There has been an interesting exchange on the use of Low Copy Number DNA profiling in recent editions of Nature Review Genetics. An Ethics Watch article LCN DNA: proof beyond reasonable doubt? in May by Leeds lawyer Carole McCartney generated further commentary in the September 2008 edition of the journal.

  6. The European Court of Human Rights has decided that the retention the men’s DNA in the database is a breach of their rights http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7764069.stm This is going to have significant implications

  7. […] see Bioethicsbytes ‘Give us your DNA’ – Panorama and the BioethicsBytes Extended Commentary ‘Give us your DNA’ – Panorama. […]

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