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The troubling implications of forensic genetic genealogy

On Behalf of | Feb 28, 2024 | Criminal Defense

Commercial genetic databases, like 23andMe and AncestryDNA, have become a social phenomenon, giving consumers unprecedented access to information about their ancestral heritage, health and familial connections.

They’re also providing law enforcement with new tools to reopen old cases. Forensic genetic genealogy (FGG) has rapidly emerged as a powerful force in the world of criminal investigations.

People have willingly turned over their genetic information

Companies such as 23andMe encourage users to share their genetic information willingly, creating expansive databases of voluntarily submitted genetic profiles. Criminal investigators, too, can access that information – as people are slowly discovering.

In recent years, investigators have begun uploading crime scene DNA records to commercial genetic databases to identify potential relatives of unidentified suspects. They often build “family trees” that will help them eventually hone in on a defendant through their distant genetic connections. 

Proponents argue that the collaboration between forensic genetic genealogy and commercial genetic databases has led to notable successes in solving long-standing cases. High-profile investigations, such as the Golden State Killer, demonstrate the potential of this technique’s use.

What is going overlooked here is the fact that these searches are usually warrantless, and most people who contribute their DNA to such databases have no idea that their privacy may be violated that way. Many question whether familial searches violate reasonable expectations of privacy in general.

What’s the takeaway? If you value your privacy, you may want to think twice (maybe three times) about contributing your genetic material to any commercial DNA testing company. If you’ve been identified as a suspect in an old criminal case based on your genetic profile, do not assume that your case is hopeless. Experienced legal guidance can help you understand your options based on the specifics of your case.