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Law Enforcement Access To Consumer Genetics Needs to Be Closed

by Bill Barton

The United States. is well on the way to establishing a de facto national database, according to an article presented by Future Tense — a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University — and written by Natalie Ram, published on Slate March 19. Future Tense also hosted an event April 20, 2019, in Washington, D.C., that discussed how law enforcement is using genetic genealogy via consumer DNA testing to help solve crimes.

“Imagine the federal government enacted a law requiring all U.S. residents to provide law enforcement with their DNA profile so police could solve more crimes. Would you be OK with such a system?

"Imagine instead that the federal government established a database for which people could volunteer genetic profiles—but that the decision about whether to volunteer your DNA belonged not to you, but to your third cousin. Would you be OK with that?"

The latter scenario has already been effectively adopted in the U.S., and since April 2018, investigations based on DNA searches within consumer genetics databases, such as GEDmatch or FamilyTreeDNA, have led to nearly three dozen arrests, and with none of those arrested having actually uploaded their own DNA.

“By one estimate, more than 60 percent of Americans of European descent are already identifiable through the DNA of a third cousin or closer on one of these platforms, and nearly all such Americans may be findable soon. Meanwhile, Parabon Nanolabs, the leading private company selling genetic genealogy services to law enforcement, claims that it can identify criminal suspects out to ninth-degree relatives (e.g. fourth cousins) — widening the genetic web of indirect database inclusion still further.”

As Ram further points out, “A comprehensive genetic database is unlikely to be a viable policy proposal, and with good reason. For one thing, despite apparent public support for investigations like the Golden State Killer case, Americans are very concerned about genetic privacy. More broadly, no state to date has proposed storing the DNA of all its residents in a law enforcement database. Moreover, such a database might not even be legal. A comprehensive DNA database for law enforcement use may well run afoul of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

With the de facto growth of what is in effect a comparably comprehensive database in private hands that is easily accessible to law enforcement and other government agencies, we’re well on the way down the slippery slope toward a complete loss of genetic privacy. “If Americans are unwilling to accept a formal national database, they should not accept what amounts to the same thing by happenstance. Yet that is where we are headed,” said Ram. Regulations limiting or outright prohibiting law enforcement searches of online DNA databases currently in private hands are needed on both state and federal levels. Public accountability is the key. Crime solving might become more difficult in this scenario, but individual: genetic privacy would be more assured.

“In Maryland, such a law has already been proposed. Maryland has long been a leader in including meaningful limitations to protect ordinary individuals against routine DNA searches for crime detection purposes,” Future Tense reports. "Most significantly, in 2008 Maryland prohibited familial searches in the state’s own database. In January 2019, Del. Charles E. Sydnor III introduced a bill that would extend that prohibition to reach any DNA database, including those hosted by consumer genetics platforms." This bill was still pending in the House of Delegates as of March 19, 2019.

Other states and the feds need to take the cue from Maryland and nip the trend in the bud before individual genetic privacy is a thing of the past in the U.S.


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