The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released new rules yesterday governing when police can use genetic genealogy to track down suspects in serious crimes—the first-ever policy covering how these databases, popular among amateur genealogists, should be used in law enforcement attempts to balance public safety and privacy concerns.
The value of these websites for law enforcement was highlighted last year when Joseph DeAngelo was charged with a series of rapes and murders that had occurred decades earlier. Investigators tracked down the suspect, dubbed the Golden State Killer, by uploading a DNA profile from a crime scene to a public ancestry website, identifying distant relatives, then using traditional genealogy and other information to narrow their search. The approach has led to arrests in at least 60 cold cases around the country.
But these searches also raise privacy concerns. Relatives of those in the database can fall under suspicion even if they have never uploaded their own DNA. (One study found that 60% of white Americans can now be tracked down using such searches.) And even those who have shared their DNA may not have given informed consent to allow their data to be used for law enforcement searches.