Prof. Natalie Ram and Bioethicists from Baylor Examine Law Enforcement’s Use of Genealogy Databases


In a new paper published in Science, Natalie Ram, assistant professor and associate director of the Center for Medicine and Law in the University of Baltimore School of Law, and bioethicists from Baylor College of Medicine examine the emerging issues surrounding genetic databases.

The article is the latest in a series of national media appearances by Prof. Ram on this topic, including The Verge and Science Friday.

Direct-to-consumer genetic testing has gained in popularity significantly in the last few years, with more people sending samples of their saliva to be evaluated in order to learn more about their family ancestry or risk of disease. Individuals can then upload their genetic information to a variety of public databases that will match them to genetic relatives. While the prospects are enticing, there also has been an emerging trend of law enforcement agencies using these databases to solve crimes and cold cases, raising complex questions about ethics and data access.

Framing the conversation around the Golden State Killer case, which recently led to murder charges following an investigation using access to a genetic genealogy database, Prof. Ram and her fellow researchers discuss the process taken by law enforcement in finding a match and the subsequent legal and ethical questions that arise not only in this case but also for other public DNA databases and the consumers who use them.

Historically, law enforcement has used DNA testing to solve crimes by comparing a DNA sample taken from a crime scene with samples collected in NDIS, the federal forensic database, which houses the records of convicted, and in some states, accused criminals.
Now, if the DNA found at the crime scene does not match a known record in the national forensic database, law enforcement can use publicly accessible genetic genealogy databases to find family members of a suspect and pursue the lead from there.

Using this method, law enforcement can take a sample of DNA from a crime scene, sequence it, and upload it to a genetic genealogy database using a fake profile to see if it matches with anyone on the database. From there, they can build out a family tree to find the most likely suspect, who they then follow to collect other pieces of DNA to try to match the sample taken from the crime scene.

As a result of the increased use in criminal cases, many of these databases have updated their terms of use to address privacy more directly. But, the Science article proffers, users and non-users alike ultimately need to be aware that the information they submit is not limited to their own health or genetic profile—it also may unintentionally give clues related to their genetic relatives, both immediate and distant.

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Read the paper in Science.

Learn more about Prof. Ram and UB’s Center for Medicine and Law.

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