Caution on DNA Bill: raise awareness first

After Aadhaar, The DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill, 2018, has re-ignited fears regarding data privacy and potential abuse by law enforcement agencies. The Bill mandates the formation of a national DNA database for identifying dead bodies, victims in mass disasters and for improving conviction rates for specific crimes.

The underlying DNA fingerprinting technology is the same as used for resolving paternity suits. DNA fingerprinting has been successfully employed worldwide for solving crimes, even those from decades before the technique was discovered. It has also been used to exonerate innocent individuals wrongly implicated in crimes. Thus, there are obvious societal benefits of adopting the technology, but they remain contingent on its effective implementation.

For a DNA registry to be effective in India, increased awareness about the technology, its applications and a broader conversation around the rights of individuals and consent are needed. If the Bill is brought into an ill-prepared society, it has the potential to malign the system through misuse by unscrupulous law enforcement operators. Alternatively, the fear of abuse might limit the adoption of the technology, defeating the objectives of the Bill. Two main matters need to be addressed:

Collection of DNA from individuals or crime scenes would require training in scientific techniques and sensitisation of personnel to an individual’s rights. The Bill mandates that DNA be taken only from consenting individuals; however, this can be circumvented through a magistrate’s approval if the information is considered vital for the investigation. In this regard, citizens need to recognise the sensitivity of the information they are surrendering and their right to decline the sample in the absence of a magistrate’s approval.

Further, once acquitted, individuals can purge their data from the system through a written application. For this to work effectively, awareness at individual and systemic levels are crucial. In the UK, for example, an investigation found that the DNA database had retained 50,000 samples of acquitted suspects. To prevent such a lapse in India, stringent protocols need to be in place to ensure that individuals’ rights are not violated.

The permanent storage of data is tied to major concerns of data privacy and protection. This risk is magnified because DNA sequences hold copious amounts of information about the individual – family history, disease susceptibilities and even some personal characteristics. Further, as our understanding of DNA improves, it could potentially reveal many other aspects of an individual’s life.

This concern becomes pertinent as the registry will also hold DNA samples. This provision makes sense, because just as DNA fingerprinting helped solve old cases where DNA was still held, potential future technologies might provide valuable insights to the legal process based on the stored samples. However, the strictest levels of security, heavy penalties and efficient redressal mechanisms are needed to ensure the integrity of personal rights.

Additionally, a review of the current protocols in place is warranted to ensure that only necessary information is collected. The Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, for example, requests caste identification, which is not essential in criminal proceedings, while collecting samples for DNA fingerprinting.

The way forward

The underlying DNA fingerprinting technology is robust, reproducible and should be promoted. To instil confidence in the technology, ease its implementation and ensure protection of people’s rights, perhaps a staggered approach would be beneficial than the all-out approach suggested in the Bill. In the first stage, the technology could only be used for identifying deceased bodies.

In this case, only consenting relatives filing a missing person’s report would give their DNA. There would be no requirement for keeping the DNA samples and only specific regions of the DNA used in human identification would be profiled for the database. Once the missing person’s case is resolved, the data would be automatically purged since it is of no further use. This system avoids most of the questions being raised currently about the Bill and provides time to train and sensitise enforcement agencies with aspects of DNA collection, consent and data protection.

In the second stage, perhaps, DNA data for sexual offences could be collected and appended to the sexual offenders’ database which is currently being compiled. Depending on the impact of the technology on improving identification rates of unidentified bodies or conviction rates of sexual offences, further extension of the technology to other crimes could be considered.

DNA fingerprinting is a reliable technology and its decisive use by law enforcement is needed. But the first step to successfully adopting the technology has to be increasing societal awareness. Bringing in an all-encompassing Bill without the structural changes required for its effective use can have harmful social and legal consequences.

(The writer is Research Fellow, Technology and Policy Progra­mme, Takshashila Institution)

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Caution on DNA Bill: raise awareness first

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