DNA technology bill raises serious concerns over right to privacy

Lok Sabha passed the bill on Tuesday

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The Lok Sabha has cleared the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill, 2019. Union Minister for Science and Technology Dr Harsh Vardhan said steps have been taken to ensure that provisions of the bill do not get misused. However, there are still several issues in the bill that are fuzzy on protection of privacy. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, who opposed the bill, said the bill will enable creation of a 'big brother state', and that enacting it without bringing in a robust data protection law would have a bearing on the right to privacy. 

So what is the bill all about? A DNA technology legislation has been in the work since 2003. The aim is to regulate the DNA technology in solving criminal as well as civil cases. As Harsh Vardhan said, ministries, namely, home, defence, external affairs, women and child development, as well as agencies like Central Bureau of Investigation and National Investigation Agency would benefit with the a passage of the bill. 

One aspect of the bill is to maintain a national as well as regional DNA database banks. These databases will have samples registered under various heads: victims, undertrials, missing persons, deceased persons, offenders and suspects. The fears of privacy violations come in various ways. One issue is of data collection itself. The bill mandates that DNA material can only be collected by consent. The exception is in the case of an individual who is accused of a crime that carries a sentence of more than seven years, or death. One clause in the bill, however, says that in case the consent is not given, a magistrate can decide that the material is necessary for the case, and then it can be collected even without the consent of the individual. The bill is fuzzy on how a magistrate could decide the imperativeness of the material. 

The bill says that the DNA collection centres have to hand over all data to the national and regional databases. The DNA material is, however, also collected for civil cases such as parentage and also for medical cases like assisted reproduction and organ donation. While there are regulations on how DNA profiles, which were collected for criminal cases, can be deleted from the database (through police or court orders or written permission), there are no provisions for removing DNA profiles that were collected for civil or medical cases. Also, there is no provision for removing DNA profiles of deceased persons. All these, say observers, could violate the right to privacy. 

The bill makes provisions for removal of data from the database, but has not made rules for removing profiles from the collection centres. This again leaves the DNA data prone to misuse. 

Harsha Vardhan noted that all laws can be misused. However, these loopholes in the bill could make its passage in Rajya Sabha difficult. 

However, the need for a DNA technology regulation bill is not contested. The technology is a useful forensic tool. At present, according to the government, there are just 3,000 cases of DNA profiling, barely three per cent of the total need. Laboratories, too, do not have standardised rules and regulations to abide by. This means that not only is the potential of DNA technology underutilised, but that in the absence of standardisation, it is unreliable, too.