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Catching Criminals With DNA Data Raises Ethical Questions

Geneticists are using "reverse genealogy" to fill out the branches of a family tree and track down potential criminals in unsolved crimes. (
Geneticists are using "reverse genealogy" to fill out the branches of a family tree and track down potential criminals in unsolved crimes. (
September 18, 2018

DES MOINES, Iowa — The use of online genetic databases has cracked cold murder cases recently, including decades-old murders. But this technique also is raising ethical concerns.

The publicly available genealogy site GEDMatch was most notably used to catch the Golden State Killer in California. 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, said people who upload their genetic information to the site could expose 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,” Fullerton said.

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

Head of the National Criminal Justice Association Chris Asplen said information from the technology is publicly available, and he believes police should be able to use it too.

"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?" Asplen argued.

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

Fullerton said there could be another 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,” she said; “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,’”

A massive number of people are searchable on the 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.

Roz Brown/Cynthia Howard, Public News Service - IA