Britain's DNA database violates privacy: court

STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - Britain violated the privacy of two people by storing their DNA profiles, Europe’s human rights court ruled on Thursday, a decision that calls into question rules governing the use of the country’s DNA database.

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

British groups campaigning for individual liberties immediately demanded a change in the law, which the government rejected.

The case centered 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 on the basis of a law allowing them to keep it indefinitely.

The two individuals argued 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 ($53,000) in expenses.

British 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 judgment,” Smith said.

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

“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, 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.

Reporting by Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg, Estelle Shirbon in Paris, Luke Baker and Michael Holden in London; Editing by Janet Lawrence