Informed consent, privacy, and justice concerns are 3 issues that should be addressed before the use of online genealogy data in criminal cases becomes widely adopted, according to bioethicists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), who authored a paper on the topic published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Online genealogy services have been around for years and have become increasingly popular, but the capability of law enforcement to use records from these consumer-based DNA resources has only recently became a public concern, in light of the arrest of the ‘Golden State Killer’. In that case, police used the online genealogy site ‘GEDmatch’ which held the record of a distant relative of the suspect.

“Although everyone should generally understand and agree to the potential uses of their personal data, how specific their consent should be remains unresolved,” write the authors. While “substantial support” exists for allowing broad consent in biomedical research, based on an understanding that scientists will use an individual’s material to advance medical knowledge, clearly, there is a difference between this type of research and forensics, which can be used in criminal investigations and may have implications for others. 

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Users of consumer genealogy sites should be made aware that their data may be used in criminal investigations, say the NIH bioethicists, as “many companies do not inform users that their information may be subject to forensic analysis.” The legality of law enforcement using such genealogy data appears to be sound as the voluntary release of DNA to a genealogy company falls under the “abandonment doctrine”, which holds that a person has no “reasonable expectation of privacy” in abandoned materials.

Another concern with the widespread distribution of DNA is employment or insurance discrimination through re-identification of genomic data; this could potentially reveal genetic risk factors for disease and other sensitive health information. However, the authors believe this risk to be “overstated”, as the process is so complex. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that in the future such a privacy concern could become a societal issue. The authors suggest that policymakers implement the proper safeguards to reassure that genomic data is safe in this regard.

A commitment to transparency is “extremely important”, write the authors, for both genealogy companies and law enforcement. For law enforcement in particular, they suggest that formalized standards and a mechanism of accountability be adopted. “We recommend using forensic genealogy as an investigative tool rather than a primary source of evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Likewise, justice concerns might warrant limiting criminal genealogy searching to cold cases involving crimes in which other investigative methods have failed,” they conclude.

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