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The DNA Bill has a sequence of problems that need to be resolved

Posted by Shweta Mohandas and Elonnai Hickok at Jan 15, 2019 02:36 AM |
In its current form, it’s far from comprehensive and fails to adequately address privacy and security concerns.

The opinion piece was published by Newslaundry on January 14, 2019.


On January 9, Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan introduced the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill, 2018, amidst opposition and questions about the Bill’s potential threat to privacy and the lack of security measures. The Bill aims to provide for the regulation of the use and application of DNA technology for certain criminal and civil purposes, such as identifying offenders, suspects, victims, undertrials, missing persons and unknown deceased persons. The Schedule of the Bill also lists civil matters where DNA profiling can be used. These include parental disputes, issues relating to immigration and emigration, and establishment of individual identity. The Bill does not cover the commercial or private use of DNA samples, such as private companies providing DNA testing services for conducting genetic tests or for verifying paternity.

The Bill has seen several iterations and revisions from when it was first introduced in 2007. However, after repeated expert consultations, the Bill even at its current stage is far from a comprehensive legislation. Experts have articulated concerns that the version of the Bill that was presented post the Puttaswamy judgement still fails to make provisions that fully uphold the privacy and dignity of the individual. The hurry to pass the Bill by pushing for it by extending the winter session and before the Personal Data Protection Bill is brought before Parliament is also worrying. The Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha with only one amendment: which changed the year of the Bill from 2018 to 2019.

Need for a better-drafted legislation

Although the Schedule of the Bill includes certain civil matters under its purview, some important provisions are silent on the procedure that is to be followed for these civil matters. For example, the Bill necessitates the consent of the individual for DNA profiling in criminal investigation and for identifying missing persons. However, the Bill is silent on the requirement for consent in all civil matters that have been brought under the scope of the Bill.

The omission of civil matters in the provisions of the Bill that are crucial for privacy is just one of the ways the Bill fails to ensure privacy safeguards.  The civil matters listed in the Bill are highly sensitive (such as paternity/maternity, use of assisted reproductive technology, organ transplants, etc.) and can have a far-reaching impact on a number of sections of society. For example, the civil matters listed in the Bill affect women not just in the case of paternity disputes but in a number of matters concerning women including the Domestic Violence Act and the Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques Act. Other matters such as pedigree, immigration and emigration can disproportionately impact vulnerable groups and communities, raising raises concerns of discrimination and abuse.

Privacy and security concerns

Although the Bill makes provisions for written consent for the collection of bodily substances and intimate bodily substances, the Bill allows non-consensual collection for offences punishable by death or imprisonment for a term exceeding seven years. Another issue with respect to collection with consent is the absence of safeguards to ensure that consent is given freely, especially when under police custody. This issue was also highlighted by MP NK Premachandran when he emphasised that the Bill be sent to a Parliamentary Standing Committee.

Apart from the collection, the Bill fails to ensure the privacy and security of the samples. One such example of this failure is Section 35(b), which allows access to the information contained in the DNA Data Banks for the purpose of training. The use of these highly sensitive data—that carry the risk of contamination—for training poses risks to the privacy of the people who have deposited their DNA both with and without consent.

An earlier version of the Bill included a provision for the creation of a population statistics databank. Though this has been removed now, there is no guarantee that this provision will not make its way through regulation. This is a cause for concern as the Bill also covers certain civil cases including those relating to immigration and emigration.

Conclusion

In July 2018, the Justice Sri Krishna Committee released the draft Personal Data Protection Bill. The Bill was open for public consultation and is now likely to be introduced in Parliament in June. The PDP Bill, while defining “sensitive personal data”, provides an exhaustive list of data that can be considered sensitive, including biometric data, genetic data and health data. Under the Bill, sensitive personal data has heightened parameters for collection and processing, including clear, informed, and specific consent. Ideally, the DNA Bill should be passed after ensuring that it is in line with the PDP Bill.

The DNA Bill, once it becomes a law, will allow for law enforcement authorities to collect sensitive DNA data and database the same for forensic purposes without a number of key safeguards in place with respect to security and the rights of individuals. In 2016 alone, 29,75,711 crimes under various provisions the Indian Penal Code were reported. One can only guess the sheer number of DNA profiles and related information that will be collected from both criminal and specified civil cases. The Bill needs to be revised to reduce all ambiguity with respect to the civil cases, and also to ensure that it is in line with the data protection regime in India. A comprehensive privacy legislation should be enacted prior to the passing of this Bill.

There are still studies and cases that show that DNA testing can be fallible. The Indian government needs to ensure that there is proper sensitisation and training on the collection, storage and use of DNA profiles as well as the recognition and awareness of the fact that the DNA tests are not infallible amongst key stakeholders, including law enforcement and the judiciary.

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