Britain bowed to a court ruling and promised Thursday to remove the DNA records of hundreds of thousands of innocent people from its vast national database of genetic information — but many will have to wait up to 12 years for their details to be deleted.
People arrested on suspicion of a vast range of minor offenses, from shoplifting to public drunkenness, will have their DNA profiles held for six years even if they are not charged.
Critics accused the government of flouting the spirit of a European Court of Human Rights ruling and undermining the legal presumption of innocence in British law. The court in December rejected Britain's "blanket and indiscriminate" storage of genetic information.
"People in Britain should be innocent until proven guilty," said Chris Grayling, law and order spokesman for the opposition Conservatives. "Ministers are just trying to get away with as little as they possibly can instead of taking real action to remove innocent people from the DNA database."
British police currently can take DNA samples from anyone who is arrested, and can keep the genetic profiles indefinitely even if the suspect is never charged. Even some victims of crime have found themselves on the database after samples of their blood or other genetic material were taken from crime scenes.
Holds profiles of more than 5 million
The information is stored on one of the world's largest national DNA databases, which was set up in 1995 and now holds genetic profiles of more than 5 million people — 8 percent of the country's population. The FBI's national U.S. database, although larger, has information on about 0.5 percent of Americans.
The Home Office estimates that last year DNA matches solved more than 17,000 crimes, including 83 killings and 184 rapes. And even the government's critics acknowledge the role the database plays in solving murders and other serious crimes, including "cold cases" whose perpetrators have evaded justice.
While many countries have database projects, Britain is one of the few nations to keep indefinitely the DNA profiles of people who are legally innocent.
In Finland, Ireland and Sweden, for example, DNA samples are destroyed soon after acquittal. In France, police can take DNA samples from people before they are formally charged and can keep the information for 25 years, but people acquitted or not charged can ask to be removed from the database.
In the United States, laws on collecting DNA samples vary from state to state — some collect samples from people who are arrested, others only from convicted suspects.
The U.S. government announced plans last year to begin collecting DNA samples from anyone arrested by a federal law enforcement agency, as well as from many immigrants detained by the authorities — a departure from current federal practice that limits DNA collection to convicted felons.
If a person is arrested but not convicted, they can ask to be removed — although FBI spokeswoman Ann Todd said Thursday that the agency had never been asked to delete a sample from the national database, which contains almost 7 million DNA profiles.
Israel has DNA database
Israel has a database of DNA from members of the armed forces — a large chunk of the population in a country where military service is compulsory — but it is used only to identify dead troops and is not available to the police. Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police had a goal of establishing a national database with a record of the whole population's DNA, but could not provide statistics.
British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said under the new proposals, authorities would delete after six years the DNA profiles of people who are arrested but not convicted of most "recordable offenses" — a category that includes everything from robbery to refusing to take a breath test. Those arrested for serious crimes, including sexual violence and terrorism, but not charged, or those charged and acquitted, would have to wait 12 years for their details to be removed.
Children and teenagers would have their profiles deleted when they turn 18, unless they are convicted of a serious crime.
All the original samples of blood, hair, saliva or other material used to create the computerized profiles would be destroyed within six months, whether the suspect is charged or not.
The government estimates the changes will cut up to 850,000 profiles from the database.
Database 'plays a vital role'
Smith said the DNA database "plays a vital role" in putting criminals behind bars.
"These new proposals will ensure that the right people are on it, as well as considering where people should come off," she said.
The government was forced to change the way it takes and stores genetic information after the European court ruled in December that keeping DNA samples and fingerprints violated a person's right to a private life — a protection under the Human Rights Convention that Britain has signed.
Alec Jeffreys, the British scientist who discovered DNA fingerprinting, said he was disappointed by the government proposals. In 1984, Jeffreys identified the patterns of genetic material that are unique to almost every individual — a discovery that revolutionized criminal investigations.
Jeffreys has spoken out against the database, saying it casts a shadow of criminality over people who have not committed a crime.
"There are 800,000 entirely innocent people on that database," Jeffreys said. "I've spoken to some of them. A lot of them are upset, some are distressed."
Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, said the proposals "come pretty close" to scoffing at the European court ruling.