The Ethics Behind Using Genealogy Websites to Find Crime Suspects
In April, the Golden State Killer, a former police officer responsible for a spate of rapes and murders in the 1970s and 1980s, was finally arrested – thanks to a genealogy website.
Armed with the killer’s DNA from various crime scenes, detectives used a website called GEDmatch to track down potential relatives with similar genetics. This ultimately led them to a handful of suspects, one of which matches the rest of the clues: Joseph James DeAngelo, a 72-year-old man living in a quiet area of Sacramento, California. Investigators were then able to collect a tiny portion of the man’s DNA, taken from something he had thrown away, and then use that genetic material to confirm he was the Golden State Killer.
While catching a murderer is undoubtedly a good thing, the event sparked a debate over the ethics of using popular genealogy websites like 23andMe and Ancestry.com to solve crimes. [Genetics by the Numbers: 10 Tantalizing Tales]
In a remark published yesterday (May 28) in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, three bioethicists from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) argued that law enforcement and genealogy websites should be transparent about how genetic information people could be used in forensic investigations. The authors warned that this new method could be better used as an “investigative tool” rather than the primary means by which police convict people.
“This is a very powerful technology,” said commentary co-author Benjamin Berkman, a faculty member in the bioethics department at NIH. “He can do things that I don’t think we could imagine a few years ago.”
And with that power comes a new area that politics haven’t quite caught up with: “Police departments are starting to use it, and maybe [we need to] think about what kinds of rules and guidelines they’ll follow when using it, ”Berkman told Live Science.
Do people know how their genetic data can be used?
“Many companies do not notify users that their information is subject to forensic analysis,” the authors wrote. “Others mention it in their terms of service, but it’s highly doubtful that users internalize (or even read) these documents.”
In the biomedical world, evidence indicates that people are okay with their data being used for a wide variety of scientific purposes, as long as they are asked for permission first, according to the commentary. But how people will react to the use of their information for forensic purposes remains a bit murky, especially since their data can be used to accuse other people.
The Golden State Killer, for example, was arrested because one of his distant relatives uploaded DNA data to GEDmatch.
“Some people might be fine if their data indirectly leads to their cousin’s arrest for a crime they’ve committed,” Berkman said. “But other people might not, and I think you may have a reasonable disagreement on that.” So, “people should know this before downloading their data,” he said.
Others may worry about the possibility of wrongly convicting loved ones or innocent people – although Berkman noted that he was less worried about the possibility. Police primarily use these sites to spot suspects who they will then investigate further, he said. So your data is unlikely to convict your innocent loved ones, he said, but further investigations might “bother” them. [10 Amazing Things Scientists Just Did with CRISPR]
It is also a problem at crime scenes, the authors wrote. “Prosecutors and courts could overinterpret or misuse DNA identification as a source of evidence,” the commentary said. “DNA evidence only shows that an individual’s genetic material was found in a particular location, not that the person was present during the crime, or even guilty of committing it.”
Do you give up your DNA when you download it?
According to the authors, a genealogical search would likely not count as a “search” under the Fourth Amendment (which protects against illegal searches and seizures). But even if that were the case, there is what is known as the ‘doctrine of abandonment’, which maintains that anything that is thrown away (such as DNA from cigarette butts at crime scenes) is not is not protected by privacy laws. And technically, when people upload their DNA to genealogy websites, they “give it up,” the authors wrote.
“When you download your data, it’s a bit like throwing out a toothbrush,” Berkman said. “Legally speaking, I’m not sure you should have an expectation of confidentiality.” However, he said, to his knowledge, there have been no case studies exploring this idea, while there have been legal reviews of police rummaging through the garbage of a suspect. . But whether or not it is good social policy to keep DNA uploaded to genealogy websites to the same privacy laws as DNA left in public spaces is debatable, Berkman added.
Discrimination is also a concern, the authors wrote. “Concerns remain that the extensive use of forensic DNA analysis in any setting may lead to discrimination, particularly if law enforcement agencies aggressively target certain groups using racial or ethnic markers. when searching for individual suspects, ”the authors said.
According to Berkman, the use of genealogy websites for forensic purposes is becoming more common, but investigators are not making it public. Berkman and his co-authors concluded that it is important for investigators and websites to be transparent about whether people’s genetic data could be or is being used for forensic purposes.
All of this “isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be using this technology, just that we should be more aware of the tradeoffs both as a company and as individual users,” Berkman said.
Originally published on Live Science.