DNA database violates privacy

STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - Europe’s human rights court ruled on Thursday that Britain had violated two people’s privacy by storing their DNA profiles, even though they had not been convicted of a crime.

A strand of DNA is seen in an undated handout image. REUTERS/National Institutes of Health/Handout

The decision calls into question rules governing use of the DNA database under which police can take samples from anyone arrested for a recordable offence.

Civil liberties groups jumped on the ruling to demand a change in the law, which the government rejected.

The test case centred on a boy who was charged with attempted robbery aged 11 and later acquitted, and a man who was charged with harassing his partner before the case was formally discontinued.

Both applied for their fingerprints, DNA samples and profiles to be destroyed, but police kept the information.

The two individuals argued that this continued to cast suspicion on them after they had been cleared of any wrongdoing.

“The court was struck by the blanket and indiscriminate nature of the power of retention,” said the European Court of Human Rights, based in the eastern French city of Strasbourg.

“The powers of retention of the fingerprints, cellular samples and DNA profiles of persons suspected but not convicted of offences ... failed to strike a fair balance between the competing public and private interests,” it said.

The 17 judges ruled unanimously that Britain had violated the right to respect for private life. They awarded the two people concerned 42,000 euros each (36,400 pounds) in expenses.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said she was disappointed by the ruling.

“DNA and fingerprinting is vital to the fight against crime, providing the police with more than 3,500 matches a month ... The existing law will remain in place while we carefully consider the judgement,” she said.

But rights activists were jubilant.

“The DNA profiles of roughly 85,000 innocent people should be taken off the National DNA Database,” campaign group Liberty said in a statement.

“The decision will require the UK government to reconsider its policies under which the DNA of innocent individuals ... is permanently retained by police.”

Police defended their right to retain DNA profiles of people not convicted of any crime, saying the practice had helped identify many criminals.

“From May 2001 to December 2005, 200,000 DNA samples were retained on the National DNA Database which would previously have had to be removed as they were taken from people charged but not convicted of offences,” said Chris Sims of the Association of Chief Police Officers.

“Of these, about 8,500 profiles of individuals have been linked with crime scene profiles involving nearly 14,000 offences,” Sims said.

The Conservatives called for a parliamentary debate on the issue.

“This vindicates all that we have been saying about the government’s wrong-headed approach to this issue which has caused so much resentment amongst the law abiding majority,” said Dominic Grieve, the party’s home affairs spokesman.

Reporting by Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg, Estelle Shirbon in Paris, Luke Baker and Michael Holden in London; Editing by Steve Addison.