MK Zahava Gal-On
MK Zahava Gal-On. Photo by Nir Keidar
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The Knesset yesterday authorized a significant expansion of the police's authority to take DNA samples from suspects. MKs also approved the streamlining of procedures by which the police can send DNA information to other security forces around the world.

Under revisions adopted yesterday, the police can transfer the genetic profile of past and present crime suspects overseas. It suffices for a person to have been investigated for certain crimes, even if he or she was never prosecuted. The person's genetic profile can be put on Israel's database and the police will be entitled to send the information around the world.

MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz ) and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said the police will not be able to monitor sensitive information that is transferred abroad. Gal-On and the association say the new procedures could mean that information on Israelis will land in the wrong hands overseas.

Fourteen Knesset members voted in favor of the new law. Its only opponent was Gal-On.

"As part of the laudable intention to track down serial offenders, the police collect genetic information from suspects and people convicted of crimes. And they can use this information to solve crimes," Gal-On said. But she added that it is problematic for the police "to send this information to overseas investigating authorities, which many not uphold reasonable privacy- and information-protection procedures."

The new law is expected to allow the police to use genetic information for controversial purposes. As part of efforts to locate missing persons and identify murder victims, the police will be able to browse genetic databases carrying information from criminal investigations.

This means the police will be able to take a genetic sample from a person's clothes or other item like a toothbrush to ascertain whether that person committed an unsolved crime in the past.

According to Gal-On, "The taking of body samples should be an extraordinary step. And though it's desirable to enhance the efficiency of police investigations, this current proposal does not involve sufficient checks and balances that would ensure protection of privacy. It does not preempt illicit use of personal information compiled in a DNA database."

Up to now, the law that allows the police to set up genetic databases allows investigators to take DNA samples from people convicted of crimes, as well as from suspects investigated in the past on suspicion of serious offenses but who were never prosecuted. These include people suspected of sex crimes, assault and car theft.

The chairman of the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu ), brought the bill this week to the full Knesset for approval. He said the need for revisions in the existing law became apparent after several years of research in the field.

"The proposed revisions will make it easier for Israel's police to cooperate with counterpart forces overseas by giving and receiving information, and dealing with crime that has international ramifications," he said.

Revisions approved by the Knesset include the conferral of a right to the police to take genetic samples not only from people convicted of crimes in Israel, but also from people tried and convicted outside Israel but who are doing time in this country under extradition agreements.

The new law stipulates that the police will be empowered to include in their database genetic information received from another country, or obtained during the enforcement of laws in the West Bank.

The law seeks to limit the police's ability to use the genetic information it obtains. For example, under the new procedure, the police will be authorized to conduct one-time comparisons between genetic information received from overseas agencies and information in its own database. They will not be able to make such comparisons on a continuing basis.

The police will also be authorized to make one-time comparisons of fingerprint and photographic information received from agencies overseas.

Revisions approved yesterday also allow the police to send genetic information in its database to other authorities in Israel, including prosecutors, the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service. These agencies can use the genetic information for purposes specified by the law.

The new law allows the police to establish a new database for the search for missing persons and the identification of bodies. Genetic information compiled for these purposes will be shared with the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute. The new database will help the state help families track down missing relatives; it will also help the police and the forensic institute identify bodies of people killed in major natural disasters, war or other calamities.

To protect the privacy of missing persons or the dignity of unclaimed bodies, the law sets forth a series of steps. For example, if the police take a sample with the consent of a relative of a missing person, that sample will be included in the missing-person database. But comparisons between it and information in the criminal genetic database will be prohibited.