The Risky Business of Sharing DNA

GREENWALL GRANT
Professor Natalie Ram is conducting further research into issues related to DNA use with a $279,074 grant from the Greenwall Foundation as a Greenwall Faculty Scholar in Bioethics. The Scholars program supports interdisciplinary and bioethics research with the goal of helping to resolve pressing ethical issues, inform biomedical knowledge and enhance public policy.

In April police arrested Joseph James DeAngelo, a man they believe to be the notorious Golden State Killer—a serial murderer and rapist who terrorized the community of Sacramento, California, in the late 1970s. Perhaps one of the most fascinating—and controversial—aspects of the case involves the way law enforcement officers identified the suspect: they used DNA from a public genealogical website to find a distant relative of DeAngelo’s and ultimately link him to evidence from the crimes.

Natalie Ram (photo by JJ CHRYSTAL)

Police have long relied on criminal DNA databases in their investigations. But using DNA which has been voluntarily provided for the purpose of contacting family members raises new questions, says Natalie Ram, assistant professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law. “I suspect until the Golden State Killer arrest very few people had given a lot of thought to the difference between use of that data by law enforcement to solve crimes and use of their DNA to track down their relatives,” she says.

Ram has been investigating where to draw the line between privacy and crime solving for more than a decade, and recently earned a grant from the Greenwall Foundation to further examine how police make use of non-law enforcement DNA repositories. After the Golden State Killer arrest, she and two co-authors published “Genealogy databases and the future of criminal investigation” in Science magazine.

Currently Maryland and Washing-ton, D.C. are the only jurisdictions in the United States where law enforcement is prohibited from using DNA of family members to identify suspects, Ram explains. That legislation, however, is limited to only government-run databases and would not exclude police from using a genealogical-type site. “Just as law enforcement didn’t appear to make use of genealogical DNA data until the Golden State Killer arrest and now we have a proliferation of use of that kind of data, I think law enforcement’s appetite for new sources of DNA data is not going to go away,” she says.

“I think law enforcement’s appetite for new sources of DNA data is not going to go away.” -NATALIE RAM

Police who are investigating a crime are focusing on catching the perpetrator by any legal method, points out Charles Tumosa, director of UB’s Forensics Studies program in the College of Public Affairs’ School of Criminal Justice. Tumosa recently appeared on an episode of a British podcast affiliated with The Guardian to discuss DNA privacy and the law.

During the Golden State investigation, California police searched a public website called GEDmatch, an online forum where people share their genetic information (obtained from using services like ancestry.com) to connect with each other. Because people share their data voluntarily on GEDmatch and similar sites, Tumosa says that issues of privacy protection become complicated. People are taking “a risk by putting that data into that system,” he says. “If you’re willing to do that, how much of a leap is it to say, well, the police might become interested in you or in your family?”

Charles Tumosa (photo by JJ CHRYSTAL)

Tumosa says most people participating in a genetic database are hoping to unearth interesting things about their heritage, or find out that they are linked to famous historical figures such as George Washington or Frederick Douglass. They rarely consider that generations of relatives might include “some good people, and some not so good people.”

Whether police investigators acted ethically in using a family member’s DNA to target the suspect is another concern. Tumosa says it’s important to distinguish between issues of ethics and issues of the law. “When lawyers go to court, they never argue ethics or morals, they argue the law,” he says. “Police officers learn the rule of law, and if the law gives you the right to do something, you can do it.”

Use of these new technologies poses many quandaries, according to Ram. As part of her three-year grant, she also plans to focus on the possibility that law enforcement could tap additional databases such as research and clinical repositories of genetic information. If statutory protections are not in place to prevent use of these more comprehensive databases, she says, “it’s only a matter of time before law enforcement starts to use those resources as well. At that point, we have a universal DNA database, which no state has authorized.”

Kristi Moore is a writer based in Baltimore and the digital content specialist in UB’s Office of Marketing and Creative Services.

 

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