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Draft DNA phenotyping law set to go before Swiss parliament

The current DNA analysis available to Swiss police is deemed insufficient. Keystone / Thomas Kienzle

Swiss lawmakers are set to vote on a new and controversial DNA screening method to help police track down criminals. The government has prepared changes to the DNA Profiling Act to allow for a technique known as phenotyping.

This content was published on December 4, 2020 - 16:06
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The technique can pinpoint more precise information about a person than just gender, which is the limitation of current DNA analysis being used in Switzerland. It can, for example, determine where in the world a person hails from and even deduce the colour of their eyes. This helps draw up a more accurate picture of the person police are looking for.

“Investigations can be more rapidly focused, potential perpetrators can be narrowed down and at the same time innocent parties can be ruled out of investigations,” read a government statement.

The draft legislation was prepared at the request of parliament following the brutal rape of a woman in 2015.

But phenotyping has critics who argue that it could lead to racial profiling. A recent report from the Foundation for Technology Assessment (TA-Swiss) also cast doubt on the reliability of the technique. “While it can exonerate a wrongly accused person, it can also incriminate an innocent person,” the report stated. 

The proposed law change would only allow phenotyping for the most serious crimes, such as rape and murder. Phenotyping could only be used if expressly ordered by the federal prosecutor. It would also allow police to trace relatives of suspects.

At a press conference on Friday, Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter dismissed claims that phenotyping could result in racial discrimination. She said that phenotyping had proven its worth at solving crimes in other countries.

The legal amendment also contains limitations on the use and storage of DNA samples obtained in this manner.

Before drafting its proposed law, Switzerland consulted with the Netherlands, which was the first country to establish a legal basis for phenotyping in 2003.

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