UK leads the way in development of a global DNA database

News & Analysis

The UK currently maintains the largest DNA Database in the world and is encouraging other governments to implement similar systems in their respective countries. Using international organisations such as Interpol, participant governments will be able to share and exchange the DNA profiles of their citizens subject to vague legislative provisions, such as 'the interests of crime detection and prevention'.


The successful prosecution of a serial sex offender in 2004 led to strengthened calls for a more active use of the global DNA database operated by Interpol. Caroline Dickinson was 13 years old when she was raped and murdered in a hostel in Brittany whilst on a school trip in 1996, but it was not until 2004 that her killer was convicted. Early police investigations had not raised any significant leads but at the persistence of Caroline’s parents, the French police authorities changed their traditional operational practices and conducted the first mass DNA testing in France, taking over 3,500 samples. This did not however prove to be fruitful in assisting the capture of the perpetrator.

Francisco Arce Montes was eventually charged with Caroline’s murder. He was first identified by chance after a U.S. immigration official on holiday in Britain, noticed Montes’ name on a list of suspects in a news article describing the offences committed against Caroline. The official was familiar with his name because Montes had been arrested in Miami in March 2001 after working illegally as a waiter and additionally on charges of indecent assault after breaking into a woman’s motel room. Once he was located, a DNA sample was taken from him, which matched the ‘scene of crime’ sample taken after Caroline’s murder.

Montes had been arrested previously in Germany, France and Spain prior to Caroline’s murder and was also arrested in Spain for attempted rape shortly after.

British officials who favour an international DNA database used the circumstances of Caroline’s case and her parents’ persistence to advance this agenda. In June 2004 Detective Inspector Paul Hodgson, Britain’s representative on Interpol’s DNA experts group, used the example of Caroline’s case to “push the issue forward” stating, “It was a very important case for us to be able to make reference to. Without such a high-profile case it would probably have taken us much longer to convince our partners of the need for an international database and the feasibility of it. The tragic murder of a young girl was powerful ammunition in ensuring we could move this forward.”[1]

Britain currently has the largest percentage of its population recorded on a national DNA database[2] and is consequently seen as a ‘leader’ in the advancement of DNA as an investigative tool. The British Government is calling for other countries to follow suite and already the United States, Norway, Belgium, Austria and South Africa are described as ‘important partners’ in the establishment of an international database and a standardized format for the DNA sample has been agreed to ensure compatibility[3].

However, the dreadful case of Caroline Dickinson is arguably being used as an emotive vehicle to push through controversial policy on the operation of a global DNA database without open debate. Whilst Caroline’s case may highlight the merits of such a scheme, there are a wide number of serious concerns that need to be addressed.

Interpol, the largest international police coordinating organisation has facilitated plans to create and maintain an international DNA database since Resolution No. 8 of the 67thGeneral Assembly[4] in 1998 in Cairo. This resolution endorsed the encouragement of international co-operation on the use of DNA in criminal investigations and consequently the Interpol DNA unit was established. The international database is able to collate DNA profiles provided by member states and make these available to investigators globally where a match has been recognised. Interpol has 184 member countries and currently 33 members are making use of the DNA Database to varying degrees.

In addition to simply maintaining the database, the Interpol DNA unit is also urging harmonisation of technical standards and methods across member states when creating DNA profiles from DNA samples. A number of countries use different operational practices when treating genetic data. For instance, countries have different practices on the number of markers used in their national systems. Interpol argues that harmonsiation is necessary as the various techniques hinder the recognition of matches - for example, there are six different marker systems in Europe alone[5].

However, Interpol's specific access and operational methods are difficult to ascertain. In relation to the initial use of the database by the United Kingdom, it would seem that, according to Home Office Minister Baroness Scotland:

requests for a search of the national DNA database are channelled through the Interpol London Persons Desk (also known as the National Central Bureau). Those are processed only where it is clear that the request is in the interests of the prevention and detection of crime, national security or the data subject. Only a one-off speculative search of the database is made and information (is) fed back via Interpol. A risk assessment on the dissemination of this information is then made, and the risk assessment will consider the justification and proportionality of the disclosure of the information…..All proper safeguards are put in place to ensure that this information is used properly…”[6].

However, in 2002, Interpol introduced its I-24/7 system “to connect Interpol membership countries with immediate access to vital information”. The system gives police officers the ability to search different databases by using a single gateway and thus expands access beyond the National Central Bureaus[7]. This range of databases includes the DNA profile database and fingerprint database.

In November 2005, Britain became the second country to adopt the charter governing automated access to Interpol’s database of DNA profiles and began sharing data with Interpol through the automated DNA gateway. It seems that it is not mandatory to adopt the charter, which dictates privacy and security terms and conditions, in order to access and use this automated gateway as at least 131 member countries “have been connected as part of a co-ordinated roll out policy”. Austria was the first country to adopt the charter and has submitted 40,000 profiles to the Interpol database.

The Interpol database has shown however that the use of DNA as an investigative tool must be treated with caution. In February 2003, a 23 year old man was arrested in Liverpool on an extradition warrant and taken to Bow Street Magistrate’s Court in London. It was alleged that his DNA fingerprint was a perfect match to that of the killer of a woman in Tuscany in August 2002. Despite protestations from the man that he had never been to Italy, he was kept in a cell overnight, spent eight hours in the back of police van whilst being taken to London and was forced to find a £10,000 surety before Magistrates agreed to grant a release on bail[8]. After what the man described as a ‘20 day ordeal’, the Metropolitan Police confirmed a second DNA test proved his innocence. He returned to Bow Street Magistrate’s Court a month after the arrest for the extradition proceedings to be formally dropped. His DNA sample had been taken by police in the UK following a drink-driving conviction in 2001.

It remains unclear how data is to be removed from the Interpol dataset and clear operating procedures are required.