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Ethical Questions Raised Over DNA Database Used to Catch Killers

About 90 percent of people of European descent can expect to have a third cousin on the genealogical DNA website GEDMatch, according to one geneticist. (Libertas Academica/Flickr)
About 90 percent of people of European descent can expect to have a third cousin on the genealogical DNA website GEDMatch, according to one geneticist. (Libertas Academica/Flickr)
September 13, 2018

SEATTLE – The use of online genetic databases has helped to crack cold murder cases recently, including two decades-old murders in Washington state.

But this technique also is raising ethical questions.

The publicly available genealogy site GEDMatch was most notably used to catch the Golden State Killer. Law enforcement used DNA evidence from a crime scene to search for a match.

However, the website does not yield exact genetic matches, instead finding third and fourth cousins.

Malia Fullerton, a professor in the University of Washington's Department of Bioethics and Humanities, says people who upload their genetic information to this site could be exposing their relatives to police searches.

"They don't get to have a say in those uses because they are not the ones who decided to undergo genetic testing or to make their genetic information available in a public space," she explains.

In the case of the Golden State Killer, law enforcement followed several false leads because of their genetic match.

A massive number of people are searchable on this website, according to population geneticist Michael Edge, who calculates that more than 90 percent of people already can expect to have a third cousin on GEDmatch.

Chris Asplen, executive director of the National Criminal Justice Association, says it's good to ask questions about new technology used by law enforcement and assess potential overreach.

But given that this information already is publicly available, he doesn't see why police shouldn't be able to use it too. And he notes this is a powerful technology.

"Why would it be an absurd proposition for police to be able to use a familial context of something that is actually more accurate than your last name?" he states.

Asplen says these sites should let people know that law enforcement can access their information.

Fullerton says there could be one benefit from websites such as GEDMatch. While people of color are over-represented in criminal databases, people of European descent are over-represented on genealogical databases.

"In a weird and unanticipated way, and I'm not totally sure I'm advocating for this but I've heard other scholars basically saying, 'Maybe we should allow use of these genealogical databases because it, in some ways, rectifies the imbalances or the biases that currently plague the criminal forensic genetic databases,'" she states.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA