Police have used blood samples taken from people at birth to solve crimes and identify bodies.
Since 2006, police have been able to use blood “spot samples” taken from people at birth to get DNA samples under an agreement with the Ministry of Health.
The “heel prick tests” have been taken from newborns, with their parents’ consent, since 1969 for screening of serious metabolic disorders that don’t otherwise present symptoms until damage has occurred.
But the remaining blood is stored indefinitely with identifying details, unless parents request for it to be returned.
Police have now confirmed that in 2010 they used a stored spot sample to identify human remains, along with two successful homicide prosecutions – in 2010 and 2012 – although those also required court-ordered warrants.
They were also used to identify 13 victims of the Christchurch earthquake.
A police spokeswoman said they were used “rarely and as a last resort”.
“Information shared … is tightly protected and bound by all relevant laws, including the Privacy Act, the Official Information Act … and the Human Tissue Act,” she said.
The agreement with the ministry did not override any of those laws, she said.
The National Screening Units website explicitly states that left over blood samples can be used for forensic work by police.
“It is important to note that any request from police is reviewed very carefully,” unit director Jane O’Hallahan said.
“The [agreement] ensures both parties take into account the overarching interests of the individual concerned and the wider public interest in law enforcement and public safety.”
Almost all babies born in New Zealand are tested, but to date the samples had not been used for large-scale population studies, the unit said.
A Ministry of Health spokesman said the samples were usually given to police with the consent of family.
But Judith Furlong, the mother of killed teenager Jane Furlong, told Stuff she was stunned when she found out a sample from her daughter had been used for identification.
“Forty-two years ago they certainly didn’t say they were keeping it. I had no idea,” she said.
“It’s invasive because they didn’t inform you of anything.”
Comment has been requested from the Privacy Commissioner.