The UK Ministry of Defence is "strongly encouraging" all its personnel to have their DNA recorded. This is supposed to make identification of their remains easier if they should die in a manner - a disastrous air crash, explosion, etc. - which would inhibit recognition by other means.
"Although the risk of death is small for personnel deployed on operations, the possibility is a fact of life," said Armed Forces Minister Bob Ainsworth on Friday.
"In some cases, for example in the loss of aircraft, traditional techniques for identification are not sufficient. DNA matching is a failsafe method but collecting samples from personal effects or family members can be prolonged and traumatic. Our aim is to minimise pain and distress to families by taking precautionary measures in advance to enable deceased personnel to be identified quickly."
According to the MoD, the DNA samples are strictly for IDing corpses which have been burnt or blown up, or otherwise been put beyond recognition by other means. The samples will be held by the RAF Centre of Aviation Medicine, and they will not be sequenced, analysed or put into the national police database. Thus a serviceman might commit a crime, leaving DNA at the scene, but the police would not be able to easily search the airforce medical files and so identify and/or convict him.
If the police suspected a given service person of a crime, it would normally be much easier for them to take a fresh sample under their existing powers. That said, a court order could be used to gain access to the airforce samples if the need was judged to exist.
The MoD adds that the DNA "can be destroyed on written request by the Service person, when they leave service, or after 45 years, whichever is sooner", and that it will be kept in a "secured environment".
If the MoD sticks to the regime it has outlined, there would seem to be few risks to the individuals concerned. However, in a UK which has lately seen sweeping changes based on isolated incidents, there would still seem grounds for concern. It might take no more than a single, well-publicised murder or rape which could have been solved/prevented if only the Forces' DNA samples had been added to the police database, and bingo - the rules of the game could change retrospectively.
For instance, the London congestion-charge cameras now offer live numberplate tracking to the special-powers police, which wasn't part of the plan at all - a change made in response to an insignificant series of "bombings" in which nobody was hurt except the idiot perpetrators. One might also note that one of the main ways in which the US national fingerprint files gained information for many years was the routine taking of prints from all American forces personnel.
Then, of course, there's the chance that the MoD will simply manage to lose all its files or let them be stolen/copied/mixed up - not unlikely, given the recent record of the British government in this area.
Some servicemen might want to think twice before getting swabbed, no matter how much quicker it might wrap up the inquest into their death. ®