Police using DNA familial matches to investigate capital crimes

According to a recent article in Wired Magazine, your relative’s DNA could turn you into a suspect.

With the advent of highly detailed and accessible genetic databases, police forces can now search for DNA samples that are extremely similar, but which are not identical, to an unknown perpetrator. Utilizing this technique, law enforcement officials can attempt to analyze familial matches in DNA databases, in order to seek out other family members who are the real suspects of a crime.

The risk in using this technique is the possibility that a person with similar DNA to a suspect in a serious crime, such as a murder, might themselves become a prime suspect for a crime they did not commit.

The Wired article referenced the case of Michael Ursy, a horror film director who was suspected of murdering a teenage girl in Idaho in 1996 due to a familial match in a DNA database. Because Ursy’s father had sent in DNA to a private genetics company, the police were able to match DNA at the crime scene. In fact, because the DNA was submitted to public data bank mapping Mormon genealogy, police investigators were able to run the crime scene DNA against the private genealogical DNA data without a warrant or court order.

But after Ursy willingly provided the police with a DNA sample, they found he was not a match and dropped the investigation against him. This result is statistically in line with research that finds that familial matches are not an efficient tool for identifying suspects. According to a 2014 study in the United Kingdom, just 17 percent of familial DNA searches resulted in the identification of a relative of the true offender.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) noted in an article that: “This case highlights the extreme threats posed to privacy and civil liberties by familial DNA searches and by private, unregulated DNA databases. People should be able to learn about their ancestors and relatives and about possible risks for genetic diseases without fear that their data will be shared with the cops without their consent. However, Usry’s case shows that we can’t count on private companies’ internal policies to keep our private data safe, and we should think twice before sharing our genetic information with a third party.”

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