LONDON (AP) — As many as three quarters of all black men in Britain aged 18-35 have had their genetic information placed on the country's massive DNA database, a group charged with reviewing officials' use of genetic technology said Tuesday.
The Human Genetics Commission — an independent government advisory board made up of scientists, lawyers and other experts — said young black males were "very highly over-represented" on the DNA register and could be unfairly stigmatized by being placed on the database in such large numbers.
"My breath was slightly taken away by that figure," commission chairman Jonathan Montgomery said in a telephone interview. "We know young black men are much more likely to be arrested than others, and putting them on the DNA database magnifies the impact," he said. "If the arrest pattern is discriminatory, this makes it even worse."
Britain has one of the largest DNA databases in the world, with profiles of over 5 million people, or 8 percent of the population. Seven percent of those on the register are black, according to government figures — even though only about 2 percent of the population of England and Wales is black.
Montgomery said his commission's figures came from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a government body that has estimated that about a third of all black men — and 75 percent of all young black men — are on the national register.
Last month, security minister Alan West acknowledged that the overrepresentation of blacks and other minorities on the database was worrying, but said that "our initial look at this makes us feel that this is to do with the fact that in the criminal justice system as a whole there is overrepresentation of black people."
"It is not because of a problem with the DNA database itself," he told lawmakers.
Montgomery's commission said police should stop taking DNA samples from every person who is arrested, arguing that decisions on whether DNA samples are taken should be based in part on the seriousness of the offense and the circumstances of the arrest.
British officials had planned to keep genetic information of innocent people indefinitely, but the European Court of Human Rights ruled unanimously last year that keeping such information on innocent people forever violated their right to privacy, forcing the British government to modify its practices.
New guidelines announced earlier this month call for the DNA profiles of most innocent people be purged from the system after six years, although people suspected of terrorist offenses would be excluded from this rule.
British officials indicated they are not likely to be swayed by the advisory board's criticism of the DNA program.
"DNA samples are taken on arrest for recordable offenses carrying a prison sentence," a spokeswoman for Britain's Home Office said. "The government is clear that this is the right threshold for taking and retaining DNA."
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with department policy, said the DNA database is a "vital crime fighting tool."