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'Genetic surveillance': Police use of DNA databases and privacy

If you take a genealogy test, you could be exposing your family, from your kids to your distant relatives, to the possibility of having their genetics exposed to third parties, including law enforcement.

This is because companies like GEDmatch have created massive databases of results from consumer genealogy companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com. If your genetic profile is uploaded to GEDmatch or a similar database, everyone you're related to can be extrapolated from your DNA.

This could put a cloud of suspicion around your unknowing relatives. Law enforcement is actively searching these databases and comparing the results with crime scene DNA in order to catch criminals. As we discussed at the time, this is how police identified a suspect last year in the Golden State Killer case, which had long gone unsolved.

There are currently no laws in place to protect the privacy of those who choose not to undergo genetic testing. There are no standards on what the police can search for and what information they can share.

Moreover, there are no degree or certification programs that ensure that the person attempting to match crime scene DNA actually knows what they're doing. There's no certifying body saying that a particular genealogy lab, analyst or police officer is qualified to work on these cases.

Nevertheless, genetic analysis companies are already charging thousands of dollars to search the databases on behalf of police agencies. One company, Parabon, has identified at least 49 suspects for police. Interestingly, only one of those 49 suspects had ever appeared in law enforcement files. They weren't even on the police's radar.

How confident are we in these results?

The technology has many people in law enforcement excited. Yet how confident can we really be in these results? With a brand-new science, no standardized training or credentials and mostly self-taught police analysts, there is a lot that could go wrong.

If there is a mistake, how likely is it that the mistake would land someone behind bars? Juries are notorious for taking any kind of DNA evidence at face value, regardless of its actual merit in a particular case.

How comfortable are we with giving state and federal law enforcement unfettered access to a DNA database where the vast majority of profiles belong to innocent, law-abiding citizens?

Some people will always say that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about. Yet we have constitutional rights in this country that are clearly intended to limit the government's powers. Every case would be easier to solve if everyone were kept under surveillance all the time. Do we want to be subject to genetic surveillance of this type?

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