Should police use consumer DNA info to solve crimes?

Johnson City Press • Dec 15, 2019 at 4:40 PM

For more than 30 years, law enforcement investigators have used DNA fingerprinting to collect evidence and identify suspects of crimes.

Once a sample of genetic information was collected at a crime scene, officers could compare the collected sample against a federal database of samples collected from convicted criminals or samples from other cases.

Recently, however, police have used DNA information stored by consumer genealogy services companies to search for suspects or people related to suspects.

Some companies allow police to search their databases willingly. Others require the crime for which they’re searching for a suspect to be violent in nature. Some require police to get a court order.

Last year, authorities used a consumer DNA website to identify the distant family members of a man accused of killing 12 and raping 45 people in California in the 1970s and ’80s. Once the family was identified, police said they used traditional investigative techniques to identify a suspect.

Police say the tool offered by these websites is no different than the FBI’s DNA database. Very few agencies and departments have policies dictating how and when its investigators may use consumer ancestry websites to search for suspects’ families. Most have none.

Privacy advocates say the genetic information stored by these companies is being misused. Those who sent samples to these websites were attempting to learn more about their families’ histories, not to help police accuse their living family members of crimes.

With the popularity of the sites and the sophistication of the technology used by the companies, police using the websites as investigative tools may soon be able to find at least distant relatives of any one person in America with European ancestry.

The procedures used to match a person’s DNA to potential family members is also not completely accurate, which some say could lead to false arrests and convictions, if the technology is not used carefully.

As policies and laws struggle to catch up to the practice, we wanted to ask you for your thoughts.

Should police use consumer DNA information to develop suspects of crimes? Are there certain scenarios in which it would be OK for the information to be used and some in which it wouldn’t? What safeguards would you want ancestry companies to put in place to make sure your genetic information is properly protected?

Send your correspondence to [email protected]. Letters may be no longer than 300 words and may be edited for length, style or content.

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