Friday, September 21, 2018

Forensic Genomic Genealogy and Comparative Justice

Thirty years ago, the introduction of law-enforcement DNA databases for locating the sources of DNA samples recovered from crime-scenes and victims was greeted with unbridled enthusiasm from some quarters and deep distrust from others.  So too, reactions to the spate of recent arrests in cold cases made possible by forays into DNA databases created for genealogy research have ranged from visions of a golden era for police investigations to glimpses into a dark and dystopian future.

Particularly in the law-enforcement database context, one concern has been the disproportionate impact of confining DNA databases to profiles of individuals who have been arrested for or convicted of crimes. For a variety of reasons, racial minorities tend to be overrepresented in law-enforcement databases (as compared to their percentage of the general population). 1/ But it seems most unlikely that nonwhites are similarly concentrated in the private genealogy databases that have resulted from the growth of recreational genetics. It may be, as Peter Neufeld observed when interviewed about the Golden State Killer arrest, that "[t]here is a whole generation that says, ‘I don’t really care about privacy,’" 2/ but it seems odd to speak of minorities as being "disproportionately affected [by] the unintended consequences of this genetic data" in the newly exploited databases. 3/

If anything, to quote Professor Erin Murphy, "the racial composition of recreational DNA sites -- which heavily skew white -- may end up complementing and balancing that of government databases, which disproportionately contain profiles from persons of color." 4/ That is not much of an argument for widespread forensic genealogy (and Professor Murphy did not rely on it for that purpose). Given how labor intensive forensic genomic genealogy is for genealogists and police, it seems unlikely that the technique for developing investigative leads to distant relatives will be used often enough to produce or correct massive disparities in who is subject to arrest or conviction.

Still, if police routinely were able to obtain complete results on crime-scene DNA with the DNA chips used in genome-wide association studies and recreational genetics, they could easily check whether any of the DNA records on those databases are immediate matches (or indicative of close relatives who might be tracked down without too much effort). The database used in the Golden State Killer case, GEDmatch, has data from a million or so curious individuals in it. That is considerably less than the 16 or 17 million profiles in the FBI's national DNA database (NDIS), but it is far from insignificant.

  1. David H. Kaye & Michael Smith, DNA Identification Databases: Legality, Legitimacy, and the Case for Population-Wide Coverage, 2003 Wisc. L. Rev. 41.
  2. Gina Kolata & Heather Murphy, The Golden State Killer Is Tracked Through a Thicket of DNA, and Experts Shudder, N.Y. Times, Apr. 27, 2018 (quoting Peter Neufeld).
  3. Id.
  4. Erin Murphy, Law and Policy Oversight of Familial Searches in Recreational Genealogy Databases, Forensic Sci. Int’l (2018) (in press).

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