Genealogy Databases and the Future of Criminal Investigation

Science Magazine has published a thought-provoking article about the use of public DNA databases by the use of law enforcement officials. The introduction to the article by Natalie Ram, Christi J. Guerrini, and Amy L. McGuire states:

“The search of a nonforensic database for law enforcement purposes has caught public attention, with many wondering how common such searches are, whether they are legal, and what consumers can do to protect themselves and their families from prying police eyes. Investigators are already rushing to make similar searches of GEDmatch in other cases, making ethical and legal inquiry into such use urgent.”

The article also considers issues that seem to violate the U.S. Constitution, such as the following:

“Despite the lack of legal protection against law enforcement searches of nonforensic databases, such searches may run counter to core values of American law. The Fourth Amendment is a constitutional commitment to protect fundamental civil rights. Part of that is a commitment to protecting privacy or freedom from government surveillance. Police cannot search a house without suspecting a specific individual of particular acts—even if doing so would enable the police to solve many more crimes. Yet, database searches permit law enforcement to search the genetic data of each database member without any suspicion that a particular member is tied to a particular crime. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has approved suspicionless genetic searches for individuals with diminished expectations of privacy, like those arrested or convicted of crimes (8), ordinary members of the public are different. Familial searches, like those used in the Golden State Killer investigation, are an even further departure from the Supreme Court standard. Certainly, individuals who commit crimes and leave their DNA behind forfeit any expectation of privacy in that DNA. But a usable forensic identification requires two matching parts: a crime scene sample and a database profile that matches it. Suspects identified through familial searches cannot be said to have voluntarily shared their genetic profile in a database of known individuals, even if a genetic relative has.”

You can read the full article by starting at http://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6393/1078. Once on that site, click on “View Full Text.”

5 Comments

“Police cannot search a house without suspecting a specific individual of particular acts—even if doing so would enable the police to solve many more crimes. Yet, database searches permit law enforcement to search the genetic data of each database member without any suspicion that a particular member is tied to a particular crime”
I don’t think the 2 search acts are comparable. The house search requires a physical entrance that would not normally be expected. The DNA search uses the mechanisms that are already put there for that very purpose – it’s there to be searched, it’s expected to be searched.

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This is an excellent article with specific references to recent court rulings and legal precedents. There are gray areas in interpreting the Fourth Amendment in regards to digital footprints, and it seems likely that new Federal legislation may be needed to spell out government limitations for these searches.

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Interesting how the government wants to have free access to our DNA information but wants to “protect us” by not allowing our access to government records.

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I think if police came to your home and asked could they search your home and you said yes, then they would not need a warrant.

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Currently LE is using a CODIS database to submit dna test results to. I think the government just needs to create another database for dna test results for the snps that are used at the various genealogy testing companies. LE could submit dna test results to both databases. And LE could allow private citizens to submit their own dna test results to this database. It could be used not just for criminals but unidentified people like the Doe cases and military use to identify bodies.

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