British Home Office rejects DNA harvesting disinformation
Social media posts are incorrectly claiming that a newly-published statutory instrument (SI) allows the government to take DNA and fingerprint samples from anybody who takes a Covid-19 test. The SI, called The Coronavirus (Retention of Fingerprints and DNA Profiles in the Interests of National Security) (No. 2) Regulations 2020 was made on 10 September, and excerpts have been shared on social media making claims about a government plan for the “harvesting and retention of DNA”. However, the SI is not linked to coronavirus tests, but extends the time limit for the retention of DNA and fingerprint records for cases under anti-terrorism laws and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.
How far has the claim spread?
In this case, the incorrect claims appear to have emerged on social media last Friday and spread across multiple platforms including Facebook, Reddit and Twitter, where they have been shared over 2,500 times. Posts questioning the legislation have been shared by coronavirus sceptics, members of the anti-vaccination movement, and supporters of 5G and QAnon conspiracy theories. Other posts not linked to this development worry about perceived expansion of state powers during the pandemic, an ongoing theme which has emerged during lockdown.
What does the government say?
The Home Office has told the BBC that the statutory instrument is limited to terrorism and serious crime and only applies where coronavirus restricts national security capabilities. The government’s explanatory memorandum says that because of the effects of the virus, staff with necessary security clearances only have limited access to IT systems, meaning that cases relating to national security are taking longer than usual.
A Home Office spokesperson told the BBC: “Owing to the ongoing impact of coronavirus, the Government has further extended the retention deadlines for biometrics data being retained by Counter Terrorism Policing for national security. The extension is supported by the Biometrics Commissioner.” According to the Home Office statement, “biometrics have led to the identification of people who travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight; have provided the crucial link between individuals in the UK and intelligence gathered overseas; and provided evidence of potential terrorist offences”. SIs are a form of legislation which allow the provisions of an Act of Parliament to be subsequently brought into force or altered without Parliament having to pass a new Act. Some people are concerned that they could be used to enact measures without parliament’s consent, leading to accusations that legislation is being “passed on the quiet”.
Is widespread DNA harvesting possible?
The concept of “DNA harvesting” for nefarious purposes is a long-lasting trope among conspiracy theorists. It’s usually linked to claims about population control, genetic manipulation and the surveillance state; or as a way for companies to deny business or employment to people with genetic conditions. But speaking to the BBC, geneticist Professor Andrew Beggs said while it is theoretically possible to collect DNA from a coronavirus test swab, “the quantity and quality of the DNA captured would make it virtually impossible to do any meaningful test on the DNA harvested”. Professor Beggs of the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences said: “Normally we take a blood or saliva sample for high quality genome analysis, neither of which is happening here”. The SI “certainly doesn’t make any population testing legal,” he told the BBC.