The National Police Agency has been implementing a phased plan to construct a database of DNA patterns of suspects and convicted criminals to facilitate criminal investigations. DNA patterns, also called DNA fingerprints, can identify individuals almost as accurately as real fingerprints. A 2002 Interpol poll of 127 countries revealed that 41 countries had DNA databases and 27 others planned to establish databases within five years.
Under the NPA’s DNA information-collection method, the chance of two people having an identical DNA pattern is one in 180 million. DNA pattern information consists of a combination of alphabetical letters and numerals derived from an analysis of DNA fragments that are unique to each individual. In August 2003, the NPA distributed automatic DNA fragment analyzers capable of analyzing nine DNA fragments to prefectural police headquarters nationwide. The police hope to increase accuracy in the future by analyzing 15 DNA fragments.
A DNA data bank can improve the effectiveness of criminal investigations. But it can also pose problems involving privacy rights and human rights. The implementation of the plan, therefore, requires legislation that defines the entire process, from the collection of DNA information through its use in criminal investigations.
In December 2004, the police started compiling a database of DNA patterns obtained from evidence gathered at crime scenes, such as hair, blood, bone and other human tissue. At present, this database contains only about 650 DNA patterns.
In addition, the police have acquired DNA pattern information for about 2,000 suspects under warrants for physical examination and court approval for forensic examination, but this database is much smaller than the police’s collection of fingerprints belonging to some eight million people. The DNA information is held separately by police sections at the prefecture level. The NPA plans to file this DNA pattern information into a central database that can be utilized nationwide and start operating the database in September.
Police say that comparisons of DNA pattern information from crime-scene evidence and information stored in the database will increase the arrest rate of repeat offenders. In addition, high-ranking NPA officials hope that DNA information can be effectively used to investigate international terrorism. Police also assert that the construction of the database in itself will deter crime and help to prevent false charges.
Mr. Iwao Uruma, head of the NPA, hopes to expand the database into one like that of Britain, which has DNA pattern information on some 2.5 million suspects and convicted criminals.
While it is certain that DNA pattern information will greatly facilitate criminal investigations, many questions must be answered before the NPA’s database plan goes into full gear.
DNA pattern information expressed in alphabetical letters and numerals only serves as an instrument to identify individuals. But because DNA samples, such as cells taken from the mouth or blood, contain hereditary information concerning the individual’s congenital health condition, including diseases, they should be destroyed after DNA pattern information has been obtained. Police may say that keeping DNA samples is necessary for future confirmation of the accuracy of past DNA examinations. In that case, a strict rule must be devised for the storage of DNA samples.
A strict procedural rule should also be set to ensure that DNA information obtained by police will not be used for purposes other than criminal investigations. Mr. Uruma expressed a hope that DNA pattern information will be obtained from all suspects. But should DNA pattern information be taken from all who are arrested? What if they are released or found not guilty? What would be done with the DNA evidence when convicted criminals finish their prison terms? Should DNA pattern information be taken from suspects in all types of crimes? These questions must be publicly discussed.
A mechanism is also needed to severely punish police officials who use DNA information for purposes other than criminal investigations. Outside oversight of the police database and its use may be necessary.
Because of the extremely private nature of DNA, the public understandably harbors fears of a police DNA database. The Diet must thoroughly discuss the issue to alleviate the public’s concerns. The bottom line is that every procedural step for avoiding the illegitimate collection and use of DNA information by the police should be spelled out in detail in a law.
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