DNA databases should be mandatory: researchers

By Melissa Trudinger
Thursday, 08 August, 2002

DNA databases should not be in the hands of the police, and they should contain DNA profiles of all members of the population, according to Prof Bob Williamson, director of the Murdoch Children's Research Institute.

His views, published as a commentary with co-author Rony Duncan in the August 8 issue of Nature, come at a time when Australia is grappling with the issues of setting up a national DNA database for criminal identification.

"It's a good time to make this point, as national DNA databases are being set up in Australia and around the world," Williamson said.

Most Australian states already have DNA databases and the national DNA database, part of CrimTrac, is being established. The UK, New Zealand and the US all have DNA databases, and according to Williamson, the UK aims to have profiles for one in every 15 people in Britain.

Williamson said DNA testing should have an all-or-none approach - either the entire population should be tested, perhaps at birth, or it should not be used at all.

He recommended a number of measures to safeguard civil liberties and address public concerns, including separating forensic laboratories from police control and keeping national DNA databases independent of the police. He also advocated destroying DNA samples once testing was performed and the resulting DNA profiles entered into the database.

Williamson said that his interest in the ethics of DNA testing for criminal identification purposes came from his growing awareness of public concern about misuse of DNA samples.

"I came to the conclusion that DNA samples should not be kept and that the database should not be in the hands of the police," he said, suggesting that the courts might be more suitable custodians of the DNA profile data.

He explained that this approach would better protect the civil liberties of the community, while still allowing police rapid and effective access to the information needed to identify criminals.

Williamson said that he hoped the paper would provoke debate about the best way to approach the issue.

"All of us should be concerned that criminals are convicted and civil liberties protected," he said. "These issues are complicated and they are important for the community."

Williamson and Duncan's paper is timely, with the Australian Law Reform Commission planning to release the discussion paper on its national inquiry into the protection of genetic information later this month.

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