States pass laws restricting use of DNA research for criminal investigations

Maryland and Montana recently became the first states in the country to pass laws restricting the use of DNA databases by law enforcement agencies to solve crimes. The strategy, sometimes called genetic genealogy, has been used to find dozens of people accused of violent crimes, including the Golden State Killer, but raises genetic issues. confidentiality issues.

The laws focus on consumer DNA databases, which allow people to upload their genetic information and use it to connect with loved ones. Over the past few years, law enforcement officers have started using databases to track down suspects: they can upload DNA found at a crime scene and use matches with relatives to reduce their crime. pool of suspects and, in some cases, find the suspected criminal.

Maryland Law now requires law enforcement to obtain a judge’s approval before using this technique, and limit it to crimes such as murder, kidnapping and human trafficking. It also says investigators can only use databases that explicitly tell users that their information could be used to investigate crimes. In Montana, law enforcement would need a warrant before using a DNA database, unless users waived their right to privacy.

Laws are an important step towards stricter genetic privacy standards, Natalie Ram, professor of law at the University of Maryland, Told The New York Times. After genetic genealogy was used to identify the Golden State killer in 2018, experts and privacy advocates noted that people uploading their information to genetic databases may not know they might be used for a criminal investigation. All relatives of people who download information could also be unintentionally swept into this network. It’s not limited to immediate relatives, either: a study found that a database of around 1.3 million people could theoretically be used to identify around 60% of people of European descent in the United States.

In response to these concerns, the GEDmatch databases – the one used to identify the Golden State Killer – and FamilyTreeDNA have changed their terms to only allow law enforcement to use data from users who have opted in to such searches. But the acceptance settings are enabled by default. In December 2019, GEDmatch was acquired by a crime scene DNA company, making the relationship with law enforcement more explicit and frustrating genealogists who did not want to see the service used for these purposes.

As it stands, new genetic genealogy legislation in Maryland and Montana might not be a sufficient incentive for companies like GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA to change their existing policies around user consent. Companies said The New York Times that they do not intend to make any changes at this time. Other companies, like Ancestry and 23andMe, are already requesting a to guarantee before the police can consult their databases.

The Utah and Washington state legislatures have also proposed rules limiting the use of genetic genealogy: A Utah lawmaker introduced a bill in early 2020 prohibition practice fully, and the lawmakers of Washington State took into consideration require law enforcement officials to obtain court orders to use DNA databases.

Meanwhile, law enforcement continues to use the technique to investigate crimes. Nevada detectives recently used GEDmatch to identify a victim and relaunch the investigation into his death in 1991, and a murder trial started last month for a man identified via GEDmatch.

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