POV: DNA PRO­FIL­ING

India Today - - UPFRONT - By Usha Ramanathan POINT OF VIEW

This is an era of data­bases. There are bio­met­ric data­bases: fin­ger­prints, iris scans, pho­tographs—which are to work with fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nolo­gies—and, now, DNA. The DNA Tech­nol­ogy (Use and Ap­pli­ca­tion) Reg­u­la­tion Bill, 2018, was in­tro­duced in the Lok Sabha dur­ing the mon­soon ses­sion of Par­lia­ment. The de­sire to cre­ate a DNA data­base of the peo­ple of this coun­try has been nur­tured by the CDFD (Cen­tre for DNA Fin­ger­print­ing and Di­ag­nos­tics) in Hy­der­abad, and sup­ported by the Depart­ment of Biotech­nol­ogy, since at least 2003. To­gether, these two agen­cies had, in a Study Re­port pre­sented to the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion in the lead-up to the 12th Plan, out­lined their aim as: “Hu­man pop­u­la­tion anal­y­sis with a view to elicit sig­na­ture pro­fil­ing of dif­fer­ent caste pop­u­la­tions of In­dia to use them in foren­sic DNA fin­ger­print­ing and de­velop DNA data­bases.” The first draft bill was pre­pared in 2007. Since then, it has been con­sid­ered by the A.P. Shah Com­mit­tee of Ex­perts on Pri­vacy and by a com­mit­tee set up to con­sider all as­pects of the bill (in 2013-14, I was a mem­ber of both com­mit­tees), and con­sul­ta­tions have been held in the depart­ment of biotech­nol­ogy, in all of which the Hu­man DNA Pro­fil­ing Bill has been cri­tiqued and chal­lenged. The Law Com­mis­sion was then brought into the act, but there is noth­ing in its re­port to in­di­cate that it knew of the ob­jec­tions to the bill. Sig­nif­i­cantly, it treated pri­vacy as an aca­demic is­sue, be­cause the ques­tion of whether pri­vacy was a fun­da­men­tal right or not had still not been de­cided by the Supreme Court. That could ex­plain why pri­vacy has been given short shrift in the re­port, and why the bill in­tro­duced in Par­lia­ment closely re­sem­bles the Law Com­mis­sion’s draft.

The prob­lems with DNA are le­gion. It is not that DNA is not more ac­cu­rate than other bio­met­rics cur­rently in use. After all, as the UIDAI CEO said to the Supreme Court, fin­ger­prints had not worked to au­then­ti­cate, even once, among 6 per cent of those who at­tempted to use the sys­tem, and iris scans hadn’t worked for 8.5 per cent of those who tried. DNA will not be worse. And, yet, DNA too is only prob­a­bilis­tic, not de­fin­i­tive. It is not only the sci­ence, but hu­man in­ter­ven­tion that adds to the com­plex­ity: col­lec­tion of DNA from a crime scene, for ex­am­ple, chain of cus­tody and con­tam­i­na­tion are ac­knowl­edged prob­lems pro­duc­ing wrong matches. Ex­perts warn of er­ro­neous matches due to false cold hits, cross-con­tam­i­na­tion of sam­ples, mis­la­belling of sam­ples, mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of test re­sults, er­rors in en­ter­ing in reg­is­ters, and even in­ten­tional plant­ing of DNA. DNA ev­i­dence can be ten­dered in a court, but it does not stand on its own; it must be cor­rob­o­rated.

It is no se­cret that crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion is crum­bling, and the home min­istry has had to is­sue guide­lines in July this year to train the po­lice to un­der­stand the need to ‘se­cure the crime scene’, ‘pre­lim­i­nary sur­vey’ to col­lect ev­i­dence, ‘con­tam­i­na­tion con­trol’, sketch­ing of the scene of crime and pho­tog­ra­phy of the spot. DNA ev­i­dence is too sen­si­tive to be left in such hands.

A data­base, it is wisely said, is only as se­cure as its weak­est link, and mis­use and abuse of DNA data and data leaks are se­ri­ous mat­ters. A worry about data­bases is ‘func­tion creep’— that is, the in­for­ma­tion is col­lected for one pur­pose but its use keeps ex­pand­ing. That is the temp­ta­tion of data­bases, and this bill en­cour­ages such wide use. It pre­tends to be a crim­i­nal data­base, but in­cludes uses such as ‘ma­ter­nity and pa­ter­nity’, is­sues re­lat­ing to ‘pedi­gree’, ‘im­mi­gra­tion or em­i­gra­tion’, ‘aban­doned or dis­puted chil­dren and re­lated is­sues’ and, ex­pand­ing the UIDAI’s bio­met­ric scale to span ‘is­sues re­lat­ing to es­tab­lish­ment of in­di­vid­ual iden­tity’. As the sec­re­tary at the depart­ment of biotech­nol­ogy re­port­edly said in re­sponse to a ques­tion, the UID may be linked with the DNA data­base later, when en­abling reg­u­la­tions are in place.

Usha Ramanathan works on the ju­rispru­dence of law and poverty. She was on the A.P. Shah ex­pert com­mit­tee on pri­vacy and the DBT panel on the DNA pro­fil­ing bill

It’s no se­cret that crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion is crum­bling— the home min­istry even had to is­sue guide­lines in July. DNA ev­i­dence is too sen­si­tive to be left in such hands

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