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 law enforcement’s use of DNA databases to solve crimes. The strategy, sometimes referred to as genetic genealogy, has been used to find dozens of people accused of violent crimes, including the Golden State Killer, but raises issues of genetic confidentiality.

The laws focus on consumer DNA databases, which allow people to upload their genetic information and use it to connect with loved ones. In recent 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 pool. 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 limits it to crimes like murder, kidnapping and human trafficking. It also says investigators can only use databases that explicitly tell users their information could be used to investigate crimes. Law enforcement in Montana would need a warrant before using a DNA database, unless users waived their privacy rights.

The laws are an important step towards stricter genetic privacy standards, said Natalie Ram, professor of law at the University of Maryland. The New York Times. After genetic genealogy was used to identify the Golden State Killer in 2018, experts and privacy advocates noted that people who upload their information to genetic databases may not know they might be used for a criminal investigation. Any relatives of people who download information could also be unintentionally swept up in this network. It’s not limited to immediate relatives, either: one 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 activation 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 for genealogists who did not want to see the service used for these purposes.

As it stands, new genetic genealogy legislation in Maryland and Montana may not be a sufficient incentive for companies like GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA to change their existing policies regarding 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 asking for a warrant before police can search 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 banning the practice entirely, and Washington state lawmakers have considered requiring 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 restart the investigation into his death in 1991, and a murder trial began last month for a man identified through GEDmatch.

Mark M. Gagnon