Everybody in Europe and the US should have their genetic fingerprints entered into an international database to enable law enforcement agencies to fight crime and terrorism in an unstable world, according to James Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix.
In an exclusive interview with The Independent to mark the 50th anniversary of his discovery, the scientist said the risks posed by terrorists and organised criminals now outweighed the possible objections on civil liberties grounds to a DNA database.
"It is not that I am insensitive to the concerns about individual privacy or to the potential for inappropriate use of genetic information, but it would make life safer," Professor Watson, the president of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, said.
As the first director of the Human Genome Project, Professor Watson set aside funds to examine the potential ethical concerns relating to the misuse of genetic information. DNA fingerprints, which do not contain medical information and are merely used to establish a person's identity, pose fewer threats, he said.
"The sacrifice of this particular form of anonymity does not seem an unreasonable price to pay, provided the laws see to a strict and judicious control over access to public data," he said. "It would be harder to be a crook. If you want to make the criminal justice system more fair, what's wrong with it?"
Europe and the US could introduce such a database relatively cheaply and easily, he said. "It's hard to imagine that in 100 years from now we won't have it. With the increase in terrorism, we want to know who people are."
Many people might object out of an irrational fear of DNA, which has a "voodoo quality", he admitted. "A lack of understanding of genetic complexities leaves one susceptible to the worst anxieties and conspiracy theories."
Professor Alec Jeffreys of Leicester University, who developed DNA fingerprinting in the 1980s, also called for a national DNA database for crime fighting in a speech last year at the Science Festival. Since its development, the fingerprinting technique has become one of the most powerful tools in forensic science.
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