Security is Worth a Dna Test: Italians and the use of genetics in the fight against crime


The latest report from the Osservatorio Scienza e Società di Observa, in collaboration with Tuttoscienzetecnologia of La Stampa, Superquark and Quark

The photographs of Saddam Hussein and Tony Blair being given mouth swabs for DNA testing have emblematically demonstrated to world opinion the role now performed by modern genetics in the fight against crime. The use of Dna testing to identify criminals – after its introduction in numerous countries to combat terrorism – raises numerous issues. Who should give Dna samples (convicted criminals or only suspects), for what crimes, and under what conditions (only with the person’s consent or by force if necessary)? In other words, how can the needs of public security be reconciled with the right to privacy, especially when such sensitive information as Dna is involved?

Amid widespread fears of crime and terrorism, a survey of Italians shows that they are generally in favour of measures that furnish law enforcement agencies with personal information. With a view to combatting crime more effectively, more than 90% of Italians would be willing to make their personal information available; indeed, more than 60% of them would furnish any kind of information about themselves. And Italian public opinion puts genetics in first place among the areas of scientific research best able to improve security.

Almost 80% of Italians agree with the use of DNA testing to combat crime: one in every two would restrict it to convicted or suspected criminals, while more than one in every four would extend the measure to all citizens. Only one Italian in every ten regards mouth swabbing by the police in order to examine a suspect’s DNA as always unacceptable: the reasons most frequently cited being that it is a breach of personal freedom, and that DNA matching is unreliable. Almost six out of every ten Italians are instead in favour of mouth swabbing: and almost 80% of these accept that it should be done even without the person’s consent. For one in every three Italians, Dna samples should be taken only in the case of exceptionally serious crimes like rape, murder and terrorism.

There is also broad agreement on creation of a data bank containing genetic information on the population as a whole and accessible to researchers and emergency services. It is here, however, that worries are expressed concerning the possible discriminatory use of the data by employers (when recruiting personnel) or insurance companies. Thus confirmed is a scenario already partly described by Italian and international studies: when genetic research and its applications are seen as strictly connected with the public’s priorities (like safety) their use is significantly endorsed, despite concerns about their controllability.

However, despite this general agreement, a number of issues arise. The idea that accessing personal information may also involve Dna testing, and that this may require compulsory mouth swabbing, was by no means taken for granted. On the one hand, the material usable for Dna testing and its accuracy was not entirely clear to some interviewees; on the other, their perception of its reliability and practicability was not unambiguous. For example, while the majority of Italians recognize that Dna testing can establish consanguineity or the presence of hereditary diseases, a significant proportion believe that such tests can reveal a person’s ability to perform certain types of work or a likelihood to commit crimes. Likewise while almost 90% of the interviewees knew that blood and saliva samples can be used to extract Dna, more than 30% thought that fingerprints could be used for the same purpose.

More than privacy, it is perhaps these are the main problems to address regarding the Italian public’s attitudes to genetic data. And it is in this area that resources should be devoted to monitoring, and to information campaigns which foster dialogue among experts, policy-makers and the public.

This article was published by La Stampa’s TuttoScienzeTecnologia on the 24h of may, 2006.

Data are some of the key findings of the survey “Genetic data, Security and Public Opinion in Italy”, promoted by the Italian National Committee for Biosafety and Biotechnologies, carried out by Observa – Science in Society

The survey was conducted by means of CATI-method telephone interviews with a sample of 1011 subjects, stratified by gender, age, and geographical area of residence, and representing the Italian population aged 15 and over.