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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

More DNA database debate

I always feel that whenever someone says that there is “no question” of something happening, it means there is and someone’s just asked it, and I now realise that I further suspect that when someone important enough to be quoted about it says that something is “essential”, without actually saying that it is going to happen, the game is up there too. If that’s right, then this is bad news:

The scientist in charge of setting up Britain’s DNA databank, which will collect information on the lifestyle, health and genes of 500,000 people, said he will oppose any attempt by police or the courts to gain access to the data.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Dr John Newton said strict confidentiality is essential if the UK Biobank project is to enjoy the public confidence it needs to succeed. Three years ago, police forced medical scientists in Edinburgh to hand over the confidential data of another research project to prosecute a volunteer in the study.

Critics of the UK Biobank, which aims to compare the influence of genes and lifestyle on the health of half a million volunteers, says there is nothing to stop this information also being used by the police, employers or insurance companies.

This paragraph sounds better:

But Dr Newton said there were no plans for a national biobank covering the entire population. He also questioned whether the information held on UK Biobank would be of any interest to the police. “People fear police will take a DNA sample from the scene of a crime, do a DNA test on it, then go to Biobank and run that DNA against our 500,000 and say, ‘OK, it was you’, and fish them out. As far as I understand it, they won’t be able to do that. We will not have done the entire DNA sequence of every participant, so we will simply not have the information on the same genetic variables that the police use [for DNA fingerprinting]. It is very difficult to say ‘never’, but I can’t see how Biobank will help police.”

But I suppose the danger here is not that this is already checkmate for genetic confidentiality, but that things are advancing (i.e. perhaps getting worse) one little step at a time.

First things first. First establish the principle that it’s okay to have a national DNA database. Then beef up what’s in it, to the point where the police could do what Dr Newton says they now couldn’t. Then allow the police to do just that. Then other government agencies get in on it …

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