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Regulation, misuse concerns still dog DNA profiling bill

by Prasad Krishna last modified Sep 13, 2015 08:32 AM
Experts fear such data could be used for non-forensic purposes and are concerned about the vast powers to be vested in proposed DNA profiling board.

The article by Nikita Mehta was published in Livemint on July 29, 2015. Sunil Abraham gave his inputs.

A bill aimed at creating a DNA database of offenders, slated for introduction in the monsoon session of Parliament, has been criticized by experts who fear that such information could be used for non-forensic purposes and are concerned about the vast powers sought to vested in a proposed DNA profiling board.

Despite changes made by the Department of Biotechnology, the final draft of the Human DNA Profiling Bill 2015 has drawn flak from the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), a non-profit group that works on policy issues.

The bill seeks Parliament’s approval for plans to create a DNA bank of various offenders in order to prevent repeat offences and to regulate the process by defining infrastructure, training, qualifications, facilities and legalities.

The government says that conducting DNA analysis involves working with sensitive information which, if misused, can cause harm to a person or to society. There is, thus, a need to restrict the use of DNA profiles through an Act of Parliament only for lawful purposes of establishing someone’s identity in a criminal or civil case and for other specified purposes.

The bill seeks to establish standards for laboratories, staff qualifications, training, proficiency testing, collection of body substances, custody trail from collection to reporting and a data bank with policies of use and access to information, its retention and deletion.

The offences for which the database can be maintained range from criminal and civil offences to paternity disputes.

“We need this bill because there are so many unresolved cases. A judge can use this data as material evidence and speedy justice can be served,” said M.K. Bhan, former secretary of the department of biotechnology. “Tremendous amount of effort has been taken to consult all possible parties and the bill has been drafted and redrafted over the years,” Bhan added.

In its note of dissent, CIS raised objections about DNA profiling and DNA samples being used for identifying victims of accidents or disasters, for missing persons and in civil disputes. It also objected to the creation and maintenance of a population statistics databank that is to be used, as prescribed, for the purposes of identification.

“One problem is accuracy. Unlike comparisons between digital signatures which can either have matches or no matches, biometric signatures will have a level of accuracy, so there can be a few false matches. Hence unnecessary widening of the data will reduce the accuracy of this system,” said Sunil Abraham, executive director at CIS.

CIS further noted that a DNA Profiling Board proposed by the bill will have vast powers, including those of authorizing procedures for DNA profiling for civil and criminal investigation, drawing up a list of instances for the application of human DNA profiling and undertaking any other activity which in the opinion of the Board advances the purposes of the Act. The DNA Profiling Board will consist of eminent scientists, administrators and law enforcement officers who will administer and carry out other functions assigned to it under the Act.

“Usually when regulators are created, the mandate is extremely clear. In this bill it is quite vague and there should not be so many things left to the discretionary powers of the board,” said Abraham who was part of the consultation process for the bill. He added that a number of changes have been introduced to the bill, including reduction of powers of the board, tighter definitions and more privacy safeguards.

“Any regulatory system requires external auditing, that should be taken into view. Another issue that was being looked at was that the forensic system should be outside police jurisdiction as they may have vested interests,” Bhan said.

The CIS note pointed out that although the bill refers to security and privacy procedures that labs are to follow, these have been left to be drawn up and implemented by the proposed DNA Board.

“This proposal has been doing the rounds for years and I can vouch for the scientific infallibility of using DNA profiling for carrying out justice. That being said, the bill does not provide verifiable or implementable safeguards for misuse of this data and lack of accountability of public servants can cause serious jeopardy to the privacy of citizens,” said K.P.C. Gandhi, a forensic scientist and founder chairman at Truth Labs, an independent forensic science laboratory.