DNA :: The forensic use of bioinformation – ethical issues

Using bioinformation for forensic purposes, such as DNA sampling and fingerprinting, is now considered a routine part of the crime-solving process. The UK?s National DNA Database is the largest forensic DNA database in the world, containing profiles from over three million individuals.

Samples can be collected from crime scenes and compared with those samples taken from people (with or without their consent) who have previously been arrested for a recordable offence. The database can be used not only to match samples to crime scenes but also to reveal other information about individuals that may lead to their detection, such as their sex, ethnic background, or the identity of family members. Those samples taken from those who are arrested (or victims and witnesses who so consent) remain on the database even if the person is not subsequently charged with an offence. This is the case regardless of the age or criminal background of the person arrested.

These forensic uses of bioinformation have the potential to raise a number of ethical, social and legal issues concerning:

the interpretation of the bioinformation;
the collection, storage and retention of profiles and samples;
informed consent, privacy and confidentiality in the light of data protection and human rights legislation;
access to and use of forensic databases for purposes of research;
sharing of bioinformation for forensic purposes across international boundaries; and
governance of research conducted by or for forensic laboratories.

The Council held a one-day Workshop in February 2004 to explore these issues. The discussions revealed that there is a lack of ethical oversight in this area, and public concern about some of the uses of bioinformation in forensic investigations. The Council has formed a Working Group to examine the issues further. The first meeting took place in September 2006, and the Council plans to publish a Discussion Paper in autumn 2007.

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