x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

UAE is urged to find a balance

British inventor of DNA-profiling warns of the importance of robust safeguards to prevent misuse of stored genetic information

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, the man who invented DNA fingerprinting.
Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, the man who invented DNA fingerprinting.

As the UAE set off on a course to compile the world's first National DNA Database, the inventor of the technique that underpins it said yesterday that the country will need to find a balance between crime-fighting and civil rights.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, the British geneticist whose invention has been used by police forces worldwide, said there needed to be "full transparent justification of why a universal database is needed compared with a criminal DNA database". "I would need very substantial reassurance on the type of information that will be stored in that database, on the security of that database," said Sir Alec.

Genetic material will be collected mostly from inside the mouth, using swabs. Inside the chromosome strands that make up the DNA are regions unique to each person. The region the UAE uses for identification is called the STR loci, the same part used by the FBI in the United States and by Britain's Home Office. "That is more unique than the swirls of the fingerprints," said Dr Ahmed al Marzooqi, director of the newly created DNA Database Department.

Details of the STR loci are stored digitally on computer servers. The database will keep the DNA profile indefinitely. "We compare the information on our database with the samples from a crime scene. If there is a match, then we have a suspect," said Dr al Marzooqi. Although a match does not necessarily make the suspect a criminal, it does link him or her to the crime scene. If all UAE residents, excluding visitors, were profiled, Dr al Marzooqi said, it "will simply solve and help the country in reducing crimes".

DNA evidence in the UAE is currently compared with more than 5,000 DNA profiles of convicted criminals. A comprehensive registry of samples from the entire population will begin operation within a year. The goal is to add a million samples a year. "We will divide the population into certain groups and we will test them based on priority," Dr al Marzooqi said. The first group to be collected will be juveniles. "Most criminals start when they are young. If we can identify them at that age then we can help in their rehabilitation before the level of their crimes increase."

Although the UAE has a predominantly transient and expatriate population, the digital DNA profile will be kept indefinitely. "There will be a committee to review this, but we will keep it until the person dies, even if they leave the country," said Dr al Marzooqi. He added that the logistical obstacles to establishing the database were enormous. Officials plan to have both mobile collection points and regular offices. "The challenge is not analysing the samples but collecting them from the population."

He said "major steps" would be taken to protect civil liberties, although no details had been set. Sir Alec said that since the UAE "is taking everybody in", no single group was being discriminated against. But he feared that without robust checks and balances in place there could be room for abuse and error. "For example, a database like that, if one could get into it, all the people would be identified in there," he said. "DNA profiles contain family information, and this is standard technology."

He said the database should not be viewed as a panacea to crime. "There's no such thing as a database of five million people that would not be full of errors - people misidentified, DNA profiles misassigned. "The database must be seen as an investigation tool, not a prosecution tool." Although the DNA database is meant for use in criminal cases, it may bump against Sharia law. For instance, in adultery cases, four reliable witnesses are needed to prove guilt. But genetic evidence could eliminate any doubt.

Paternity cases are another possible use, although in this area, Dr al Marzooqi was clear. "We will not interfere in adultery or paternity cases," he said. "This is one area we will stay far away from. We are also not going to look at genetic traits. That is the responsibility of hospitals." The European Court of Human Rights ruled against the British government's practice of retaining DNA profiles for innocent people. Britain has the profiles of more than 4.5 million people, 20 per cent of whom have not faced criminal charges.

In the case S and Marper v The United Kingdom, the court rejected the necessity of keeping DNA profiles of innocent individuals. However, the UAE is not a member of a similar body. @Email:myoussef@thenational.ae