Recent news headlines highlight the creative and effective ways law enforcement agencies are using commercial direct to consumer (DTC) genealogy tests to close decades-old cold cases.
By using DTC genealogy testing services, police have been able to identify suspects to several cold cases, most famously the Golden State Killer in 2018. This investigation technique opens the door to potentially solving many more cold cases, but law enforcement must be sure they remain within legal boundaries.
DTC genetic testing services have been accessible for the last 10 years and now includes dozens of independent labs such as AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and Pathway Genomics. DTC genetic tests provide access to a person’s genetic information without any involvement or referral from a doctor, healthcare provider, or insurance company. The cost of these tests range from $99 to a few thousand dollars depending on the specific test ordered.
The growing popularity of these tests is staggering. According to Ancestry.com, in 2017 the company announced that “for the first time in its history, the total number of AncestryDNA kits sold in a single year exceeded the total number of subscribers to the company’s family history services. In October, the total number of customer samples in Ancestry’s DNA database, the world’s largest consumer DNA database, exceeded six million.”
Investigators working on cold cases submit previously gathered DNA evidence from a crime scene to DTC genealogy testing services. These services then return information about the DNA makeup of the submitted sample such as ancestry composition and individuals who may share similar DNA. Such information enables law enforcement to identify possible family members of the sample donor and create an extended family tree. These relatives represent a list of potential leads investigators can follow in conjunction with other case evidence to help them identify suspects.
While some DTC genealogy testing services indicate they will “not provide information to law enforcement unless we are required to comply with a valid subpoena or court order,” this does not limit law enforcement’s ability to submit a DNA sample already in their possession. Investigators are able to submit the sample as a “typical user,” and the service would then provide the same information it gives to all typical users, providing law enforcement with potentially valuable information.
Autonomy, privacy and informed consent are three issues that should be pertinent to all users of consumer (DTC) genealogy testing services, including law enforcement users. Since genetic material is not just about an individual, but also about the genetics of related families, problems with autonomous decisions and maintaining privacy can occur. Law enforcement must remember that DNA is not only an identifier of a suspect, but of the suspect’s genetic relatives as well.
Law enforcement must also consider issues related to control and ownership of the submitted DNA material. Not all DTC genealogy testing services make clear to users how genetic material is stored or could be utilized in the future. These DTC companies have the right to give, sell, or utilize DNA submissions in any way they choose, and many laboratories are using customers’ DNA to develop products and services for commercial gain without full disclosure or consent. To limit unforeseen consequences, law enforcement should thoroughly research and understand how companies use DNA material.
DTC genealogy testing services have provided law enforcement with undeniable breakthroughs in cold cases, but could privacy concerns lead to legislative barriers in the future? In May 2008, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), was signed into law. This federal measure protects individuals from genetic discrimination in health insurance and employment. Considered to be the first major civil rights bill of the new century, it was triggered by the perceived need to make patients comfortable with medical genetic diagnostic tests. It is entirely possible that similar legislation will soon be sponsored due to law enforcement’s utilization of commercial DTC genealogy testing services.