By Samuel W. Anderson

The United States government is storing the DNA profiles of over 10 million people. The FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), developed as a national crime fighting tool, is the largest in the world. The United Kingdom's  national database is the world's oldest, and with nearly as many records as CODIS, represents around 1 in 7 British citizens. That's a lot of people.

Should we be worried about this? Here are five important things to know about any forensic DNA database, courtesy of Michael Risher (also appearing on page 24 of this issue):

Entry criteria. Who is (and isn't) included? Who can be included?

Sample collection. What kinds of samples are being collected, and how? Does the sample's "owner" provide consent?

Removal criteria. What are the provisions for sample removal, if any?

Retention. How long are samples retained? What is retained-the original biological sample, or the data gathered from it?

Database access. Who has access to the database (and the samples)?  For what purposes?

Even the U.S. and UK forensic databases have not passed muster on many of the questions above. The question of who can be included remains hot, with the databases' populations ballooning far beyond convicted felons, the original target group. Asking who isn't included can be just as important as asking who is; in CODIS, for example, African American inclusion is disproportionately high.

When such basic questions remain with the databases that serve as models for many other countries, there is plenty of reason for concern about how this tool might be handled-and, more to the point, mishandled-by police in Egypt, Malaysia or Croatia. This issue of GeneWatch features articles from experts and activists highlighting these concerns in their own countries, from Germany and Portugal to India and China. Activists in Pakistan wrote an article about the forensic DNA database planned in their country, and we could not publish their names out of concern for their safety. The article might have stopped there: we can only imagine what uses that kind of police force will find for a clearinghouse of citizens' genetic information.

Despite all of the problems, the lesson that comes out of the following pages is not that forensic DNA technology is an inherently "bad" thing; in fact, it can be a very good thing. For instance, as Innocence Project co-founder Peter Neufeld points out (p. 29), DNA evidence is a powerful tool for exonerating the wrongly convicted; and used responsibly and competently, forensic DNA can be a highly effective crime solving tool. From crime scene investigation to national DNA databases, forensic DNA is still just that: a tool. Most of the potential for harm stems from the way people use and understand that tool and from the way it fits into-and potentially alters-existing law enforcement systems.

Samuel W. Anderson is Editor of GeneWatch

Corrections: In "Finding the Active Voice" (p. 23, GeneWatch Vol. 24 No. 3-4, print edition) we erroneously referred to "The California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act" in place of what the authors originally (and correctly) cited, "California's 2006 SB 1260." 
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