A bill under consideration by lawmakers could put limits on how police use public DNA databases to assist in identifying criminal suspects.
Maryland is the only state that already prohibits law enforcement from using familial DNA searches of samples within criminal databases. The District of Columbia has a similar provision. Del. Charles Sydnor, D-Baltimore County, said law enforcement’s ability to use commercially available databases, including Ancestry and 23andme, in such a fashion would undermine state law.
Sydnor’s legislation would extend Maryland’s ban on police use of familial searches on government DNA databases to the private-sector, commercial databases growing in popularity.
“Don’t get me wrong, I want to see unsolved cases resolved and perpetrator prosecuted,” said Sydnor, adding that allowing the commercial databases to be used by police would violate the constitutional rights of Maryland residents.
In familial DNA searches, police use a sample of genetic material from an unknown suspect in a crime to develop and rank list of potential family members. Typically, the sample is uploaded to existing databases containing samples taken from offenders arrested or convicted of certain crimes.
Law enforcement officials oppose Sydnor’s bill, saying it would eliminate a critical tool in crime fighting especially after the solving of a number of cases such as the Golden State Killer case in California last year.
“It narrows the haystack so we can find the needle,” said Chevy Chase Village Police Chief John Fitzgerald, speaking on behalf of associations representing Maryland police chiefs and sheriffs.
The rise of companies such as Ancestry and 23andMe, focused on providing genealogical information for a fee to consumers, has created an ever-growing trove of genetic information provided by willingly. 23andMe says that upwards of 5 million individuals have used the service. Ancestry has reported a similar number.
The collection of that data raises privacy concerns on the part of individuals who never supplied their DNA and could be identified by a sample supplied by a relative they might not even know, according to Natalie Ram, an assistant professor of law at the University of Baltimore who focuses on biotechnology issues.
A study last year found that searches on GEDmatch, a free online genealogy site where users upload their genetic profiles, narrow down the identity of an individual to 20 people from a database of about 1.3 million users, about 0.5 percent of the adult population of the United States. Researchers estimated that based on that size, they could identify about 60 percent of adults who are white and of European descent. A database of just 2 percent of the adult population would lead to the identification of 90 percent of the same population, according to the Columbia University study.
“Every single case of which I am aware of that has used this genealogical DNA search technique, the person ultimately identified as the target of investigation and arrest is not the person who knowingly and voluntarily put their DNA in GEDmatch or in a database,” Ram said. “It’s some cousin or other genetic relative of theirs who not only volunteered their own genetic privacy but everyone in their family.”
Del. Jon Cardin, D-Baltimore County, suggested requiring “a more robust” notification that police could use the databases, comparing the use of those services to social media platforms.
“It seems to me that’s the way to go, not to stop (police) from doing it but to let people know this is what you’re getting yourself into,” said Cardin. “Just like when you go on Twitter and say something you shouldn’t have said. Well it’s not Twitter’s fault that you told everybody about something you’re embarrassed about. It’s your fault.”
Fitzgerald said the information supplied to GEDmatch is done so voluntarily and that the site warns users that law enforcement could potentially use the site for investigations. He called this a critical tool to “identify violent criminals.”
Both Ancestry and 23andMe do not provide information to law enforcement and report on their websites when information has been sought under a court order. Little stops a law enforcement agency from using DNA from a crime scene to create a profile that could be used to search for relatives of a suspect and to ultimately make an arrest.
And while the familial DNA search strategy could prove a powerful tool for law enforcement, it is not widely used. Currently, police in about a dozen states have made use of familial searches in criminal investigations.
California investigators used a familial DNA search to break open the Golden State Killer case involving burglaries, as many as 12 murders and 50 rapes. The case sat cold after the last crime linked to the Golden State Killer was committed in 1986.
Detectives in that case used DNA collected at multiple crime scenes to perform such a familial search on the GEDmatch website.
Investigators created a fake profile and uploaded that genetic information and used it to develop a family tree of sorts, eventually honing in on former police officer Joseph DeAngelo.
Police then collected DeAngelo’s own DNA from a discarded tissue. That sample was then loaded into the same genealogy site and matched to the evidence from the Golden State Killer crime scenes.
DeAngelo, now 73, is charged with a dozen murders.
“Not every case yields so satisfying an ending,” said Nam, who told lawmakers of another man who was initially identified as a suspect in the Golden State Killer case based on the same familial DNA search and later excluded as a suspect.
Fitzgerald, the police chief, said the use of the site doesn’t constitute a violation of individual rights because the data is uploaded voluntarily with no expectation of privacy. Users are remove their data at any time.
“This bill is an error,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s a mistake. The public wants this to happen. They need this to happen.”
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