India’s DNA profiling bill may become one of the world’s most intrusive laws

Only a DNA test away from getting caught.
Only a DNA test away from getting caught.
Image: West Midlands Police/flickr CC-BY-SA
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Among all the forensic tools available to criminal investigators, DNA analysis is the only one that has consistently produced reliable results. Now Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, wants to ensure that the technique be used more widely to convict criminals in the country.

While the goal is laudable, the draft Human DNA Profiling bill to be introduced in the Indian parliament soon has been criticised heavily. The Wire carried a draft version of the bill, and alleged that, if passed in its current form, it would be “one of the most intrusive enactments of its kind anywhere in the world.”

Late to the party

Since it was developed in 1988, DNA profiling has been widely used around the world. As many as 60 countries have built DNA databases, which mostly consist of DNA data of convicted criminals. Such a database not only helps deter repeat offenders, but also improves the accuracy of matching profiles.

The idea behind India’s Human DNA Profiling bill was first developed in 2003. But, even in its latest iteration which had inputs from many scientific experts, there may be too many flaws for it to be introduced to the parliament.

On costs: India wants to record the DNA of everyone ever arrested for a criminal offence. In 2012 alone, there were 3.2 million arrests. At that rate, the asked-for Rs 20 crores ($3.3 million) is probably too little to build and maintain a database. For comparison, the UK spent £300 million ($450 million) just to setup a database.

On consent: More importantly, the bill does not clarify under what circumstances someone’s DNA will be collected for the database with or without consent. While countries such as the US and the UK permit collection of DNA without consent, their laws are clear about when it can be done.

On data collection and deletion: When DNA data are collected, the person will also have to provide their name, gender, address, and their caste. Worse still, it does not set a limit to how long someone’s DNA will kept on record. In the UK, DNA data of a recordable offence can be kept for only six years.

On data use: In most countries, the DNA database is used only for criminal investigations, but India’s bill allows for a lot more. For instance, it can be used to identify victims of accidents or disasters, to identify missing persons, and for civil disputes. The bill even allows the creation of population statistics, identification research, parental disputes, issues relating to reproductive technologies and migration. These provisions could one day allow the government to push civilians to provide DNA data.

On privacy: Setting up of such large databases are fraught with problems. For instance, the law that allowed the UK to setup a DNA database also allowed keeping data of more than one million innocent people on what was considered a criminal database. This was because the law allowed DNA data to be recorded and stored at arrest, rather than waiting for the individual to be charged with offense. With India’s poor record on citizen privacy, the lax provisions in the draft bill are worrying.

On reliability: There are some circumstances when even DNA data may not be reliable. Mark Jobling, professor of genetics at the University of Leicester, explained to Quartz that, for instance, if a person has had blood transfusion or a bone marrow transplant, they will have someone else’s DNA in their body for some time. There are also cases of DNA chimeras, where one individual may possess multiple genomes. Other times, DNA data recovered from a crime scene may not be enough to produce a correct match for the algorithms.

While the idea of using DNA profiling to cut down crime and bring criminals to justice more quickly is a noble aim, the bill in its current form probably needs critical revisions before it can become law. If not, the US National Security Agency will have another reason to be jealous of India.

Cropped image by West Midlands Police on Flickr under CC-BY-SA 2.0.