Home Office to review DNA database, RIPA

The reviews will introduce 'common sense' into the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the UK's DNA retention policies, says the home secretary

The Home Office will conduct a review of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act early next year, home secretary Jacqui Smith announced on Tuesday.

Smith told members of Intellect, the UK IT-trade association, that the purpose of the review would be to bring RIPA powers "in line with tests of safeguards, openness, proportionality and common sense". Proposed revisions of RIPA could affect which public authorities can use the act's powers, and "[raise] the bar for how those powers are authorised, and who authorises their use".

RIPA powers, Smith said, should not be "used to target people for putting their bins out on the wrong day, for dog-fouling offences or to check whether paper boys are carrying sacks that are too heavy".

Smith said she would be asking local authorities whether it might reinforce public confidence if RIPA powers could only be exercised "with the consent of a senior executive, and subject to a form of oversight from elected councillors".

In her speech, Smith also conceded that the issue of the UK's vast DNA database "had been put back in the spotlight" by a recent European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision, which ruled that countries such as the UK have no right to retain the DNA profiles of those suspected but not convicted of crimes.

The UK's DNA database contains profiles of around 4.5 million people, or roughly seven percent of the population. The ECHR case related to adults' information being stored on the database, but Smith's focus in Tuesday's speech was on those under 18 years of age.

"The DNA of children under 10 — the age of criminal responsibility — should no longer be held on the database," Smith said. "There are around 70 such cases, and we will take immediate steps to take them off. For those under the age of 18, I think we need to strike the right balance between protecting the public and being fair to the individual. There's a big difference between a 12-year-old having their DNA taken for a minor misdemeanour and a 17-year-old convicted of a violent offence, and next year I will set out in a white paper on forensics how we ensure that that difference is captured in the arrangements for DNA retention."

Smith said the Home Office was considering "a differentiated approach [to DNA retention], possibly based on age, or on risk, or on the nature of the offences involved", and said it was possible that new rules could see children come off the database once they reach adulthood.

She added that the new rules could also mean "limiting how long the profiles of those who have been arrested but not convicted of an offence could be retained". However, she defended the utility of keeping the DNA profiles of those who had not been convicted of crimes.

"We've seen convictions for serious crimes of culprits who had had their DNA taken and retained for a previous crime where they were arrested, but not convicted," Smith said. "The DNA database is crucial to public protection. It not only helps to lead to the guilty; it helps to prove innocence and to rule people out as suspects."

ZDNet UK asked the Home Office on Tuesday whether or not it intended to comply with the ECHR's judgement, but was told that the Home Office could not comment on what was being considered. "There will be the normal parliamentary process in which the content of the bill will be settled," a spokesperson said.