ABKLaw BLOG: DNA databases, Ancestry.com, and Privacy

ABKLaw BLOG: DNA databases, Ancestry.com, and Privacy

BLOG from our #ABKLaw Partner Michael Jaccarino, Esq.:  DNA databases, Ancestry.com, and Privacy

Can your Ancestry.com purchase help solve a crime?

Forensic genealogy is the use of DNA to help solve crimes.  CODIS is the largest and primary law enforcement DNA database.  It is maintained by the FBI. CODIS consists of local DNA profiles, State DNA Indexes, and the National DNA Index System, which allows states to compare DNA information with one another.  

The CODIS software contains multiple different databases depending on the type of information being searched against. Examples of these databases include missing persons, convicted offenders, and forensic samples collected from crime scenes. Each state has different laws for collection, upload, and analysis of information contained within their database, and the laws governing the federal system also differ. However, for privacy reasons the CODIS database does not associate DNA profiles to any personal identifying information, such as an individual’s name. The uploading agency is notified of any hits to their samples and are tasked with the dissemination of personal information pursuant to their laws.  

Now, there is a new player in the DNA profile world that has arisen from the private sector. Over the past decade, the FBI has rapidly expanded their genetic genealogy unit, and currently, due to a variety of factors, including the fact that millions of people are having their DNA profiles developed for familial research, the field of forensic genealogy, is at a crucial moment in its trajectory.  Particularly, what these developments will mean for crime as well as privacy. For example, GEDmatch, is a genealogy database that is not part of CODIS, but is fast becoming one of law enforcement’s go-to tool for solving crimes. Now, forensic scientists, detectives, coroners and historians, are learning how to solve a murder by using the DNA profile of the suspect’s cousin. What do I mean?  

In a quest to find relatives or ancestry information, more than 20 million people have shared their genetic information with genetic databases over the past 10 years.  Many of these databases have different privacy restrictions as well as policies for working with law enforcement. Some sites prohibit the use of their databases by law enforcement while others do not, and others allow the customer to indicate whether they will allow their profile to be shared. So far, these databases have helped solve over 70 cases.   

The problem right now is oversight and who is responsible for making sure the customer’s privacy requests are granted.  What happens when someone who uploads their profile inadvertently leads the police to arrest their cousin or estranged sibling?  Currently, there is no guidance from the Department of Justice to prevent investigators from abusing these privacy concerns. Most likely, it will take a legal challenge a motion to suppress before any precedent is established to guide investigators in this rapidly advancing and novel field.  


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