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Indian Govt plans a DNA profiles database to find missing persons; Privacy?

The Indian government has informed the Supreme Court that it intends to create a database of DNA profiles that would be used to identify unclaimed bodies and help find missing persons, reports Mail Online India. A bill to formalise this database is currently in the pipeline.

The government provided this information in its response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by the NGO Lokniti Foundation. The report notes that 37,193 unidentified bodies were recovered and inquests conducted as per Census 2012 data (last census).

DNA profiles of such unidentified bodies will be generated, and a second database will be created using DNA from relatives of the reported missing persons. DNA profiles of these two databases will then be cross-referenced.

Note that this isn’t the first time we are hearing about the DNA Profiling Bill. It was first mooted by lawmakers in 2007, and then again in 2012 by the UPA government who had states plans of introducing it in Parliament.

At the time, a The Economic Times report had suggested that a pool of DNA profiles of crime offenders would be created to make crime detection more effective. Offenders included persons involved in a civil or criminal case, and even suspects. Persons, who underwent abortion, were fighting paternity suits or were receivers and/or donors of organs were also included. However, based on what the current government has told the Supreme court, crime detection isn’t the focus any more.

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That being said, if the government wants to create a comprehensive database, collecting DNA samples from unidentified bodies and from relatives of missing persons won’t be enough.

One possibility is that the DNA profiles database would be combined with Aadhaar, which already collects biometric data. But that can’t be done unless Aadhaar becomes a legislative entity. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court had ruled that Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) cannot share Aadhaar details of any person with government agencies unless the person in question provides consent.

Privacy concerns: The primary argument against such a database, then and now, is the possibility that it might compromise individual privacy and that of their families. Given the nature of the information in the database, the privacy implications are immense.

There’s also no information on how long will DNA samples, computerised profiles and other personal data remain in the database and how are they secured from a misuse?

Also, it’s not clear what would be the extent of access to the database provided to the police? Most police stations aren’t yet computerised, and it would be wrong to expect all police officers to be aware of data security.

CMS? Remember that the previous government had rolled out a PRISM-like initiative called Centralised Monitoring Agency (CMS), which was manned by the Intelligence Bureau. It’s quite possible that this DNA information could be used by the government for its surveillance efforts. That being said, it’s worth noting that the BJP government has been silent on this issue until now.

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This is probably why the Indian government needs to implement a privacy law, without which it is very easy for someone handling such a project to overstep the line and target individuals. The earlier government had drafted a Bill on the Right to Privacy in the hope of curbing the trend of unbridled surveillance and to ensure that there are legal mechanisms for safeguarding individual privacy, to balance the concerns of both individual privacy and state security. Read more about it here.

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