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Three sketches of the Golden State Killer, on which the FBI focused when it reopened the case in June 2016

Trawling genetic databases for criminals risky: forensic scientists

When the Golden State Killer, who committed at least 12 murders, 50 rapes and 100 burglaries in California from 1974 to 1986, was finally caught in April, law enforcement and forensics experts celebrated.

Naval veteran Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested after DNA, found at crime scenes, was matched to his via a profile on GEDmatch – an open data personal genomics database and genealogy website.

Yet some in forensics are now urging caution in using genetic databases for this purpose.

“Commentators have compared this … to the ethical issues raised by the recent trawling of Facebook data by political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica,” scientists from the University of Canberra and UTS wrote in a commentary article.

Published in the Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences, ‘Crowdsourced and crowdfunded: The future of forensic DNA?’ notes that DNA matches using family trees are not foolproof, with some describing the trees as “entangled meshes”. Therefore, suspects can be wrongly identified.

They referred to the case of Michael Usry Jr, accused of murdering Angie Dodge in Idaho in 1996. Usry was pinpointed after police searched an AncestryDNA database in 2016 and found an individual whose DNA appeared to be a near-perfect match to that found at the crime scene. That individual’s family members were then investigated, and Usry was found to have been in Idaho in 1996, so he became the chief suspect. After a month-long process of DNA testing, he was cleared. However, internet searches still yield results that associate him with the murder.

Other issues the forensic scientists raised include the potential for aversion to genetic testing, a skew towards suspects with more disposable income (the users of fee-for-service genealogy sites), and law enforcement uploading anonymous DNA to a genealogy site and accessing matched individuals’ genetic data.

They concluded with a message for law enforcement: “Achieving an approach that is privacy compliant, balanced and effective is essential to maintaining public trust and minimising potential harm.

“Otherwise, individuals who, having parted with $99 and a small vial of saliva, may suddenly find themselves part of a criminal investigation.”

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