Response to Sunday Times article on ethics issues raised by the Forensics Bill

Many of you may have read Mary de Haas’s recent article published in the Sunday Times last week entitled “Forensic Bill Raises Ethics Issues” which appeared on Page 10 of the Review Section in the Sunday Times, 15 March 2009

The DNA Project has written the following letter to the Editor in response to that article:

“Dear Editor
de Haas’s article is inaccurate & misleading insofar as she has failed to keep up to date with the Ad Hoc Portfolio Committee’s discussions in respect of the new Bill to which she refers, as well as the latest working draft of the Bill, copies of which are freely available on the Parliamentary Monitoring Group  website ( Had she done so, she would have found that full public debate has already been invited and taken place in respect of this Bill and that overwhelming support of this Bill has been received.

Furthermore, the manner in which DNA profiles are produced and stored on the DNA Database, namely by using only 10 STR markers to generate a DNA Profile consisting of a sequence of numbers that may be used only to identify that individual. The use of internationally accepted STR markers ensures that no genetic disposition or other distinguishing feature may be read from that profile. That de Haas has not fully researched this point is further evident from the fact that she confuses the use of VNTR’s and STR’s. VNTR’s are outdated technology and have been replaced by the use of STR’s by Forensic Science Laboratories. STR’s satisfy all the requirements of a forensic marker: they are robust, leading to the successful analysis of a wide range of biological material; the results produced in different laboratories may be easily compared; they are highly discriminatory, especially when analysing numerous markers simultaneously; they are very sensitive, requiring only a few cells for successful analysis; the technology is relatively cheap and there are a number of STR’s that may be used for forensic purposes that do not have any  biological significance or function.

The retention of a DNA profile, generated using Internationally accepted forensic markers is no different to the retention of fingerprints on a Database. The retention of the DNA profile itself on a Database will not impact on the individual in any way whatsoever, particularly if that individual has no intention of ever committing a crime, which is the only time when the profile will be used to establish a match as against a crime. Furthermore, it appears as if de Haas has made the common mistake of confusing the retention of the DNA sample with the DNA profile – these are two distinct areas. The profile is merely a list of numbers acting as a unique identifier whilst the sample itself contains all an individual’s genetic material. It is for this reason that the Portfolio Committee and SAPS have conceded that the sample will not be retained once a satisfactory profile has been uplifted. The extent of any alleged intrusion on an individual’s privacy by the retention of a profile on the Database, therefore must be seen as against what type of information will be available that will possibly compromise that individual? A sequence of numbers, just as a finger print, gives away no private or sensitive  information of that person whatsoever.

Finally, the way in which the DNA profile is uplifted  is non invasive i.e. through a buccal swab (a sample of cells taken from the inside of the mouth) or a drop of blood from a finger prick – this cannot be construed as an “awesome” power now given to SAPS. If we consider that we already allow the police to demand a breath or blood sample where the person is suspected of impaired driving, then taking a swab from a person suspected of committing an offence is no more intrusive than taking a breath or blood sample.

The use of DNA profiling to trace offenders is one of the most significant advances in tackling crime since fingerprinting. When DNA profiling is used judiciously it provides valuable intelligence information, allows for the earlier arrest of offenders, identifies individuals that commit multiple offences, identifies linked or serial crimes, allows for the exoneration of innocent suspects, can be used to identify bodies and acts as a crime deterrent.

The new Bill takes positive steps towards the eradication of crime in this country, and it is surprising that all efforts to implement a technologically advanced methodology to tackle crime, are allowed to be undermined by sensationalist theories that lack substance and are not properly researched. The protection of the public from criminals is an obligation of the Sate and even Human Rights Organisations, worldwide, recognise that a person’s right to privacy must be weighed against the public’s right to safety. On the issue of privacy, although individuals have an expectation of privacy regarding their DNA information, the current situation in SA where crime levels are unacceptably high, clearly illustrate that there exist more circumstances in which the public interest in prosecuting persons guilty of serious crimes outweighs these interests.  Any South African concerned about the levels of crime in our country should be welcoming constructive suggestions from the Criminal Justice Review Team, such as the expansion of the National DNA Database. It is time that criminals in this country were held accountable for their actions.

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