POV: DNA PROFILING
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