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Police, Genealogy, and Privacy

Law enforcement's use of genetic genealogy sites to track down serial killers has raised concerns about privacy, Bloomberg reports.

In April, police in California arrested a suspect in the Golden State Killer case after matching DNA left behind at a long-ago crime scene to a relative of the suspect who'd used the free genetic genealogy website GEDmatch.

 "We all want a serial killer caught," CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogist at Parabon NanoLabs tells Bloomberg. "But what other applications could it be used for that maybe we would not be so in favor of?"

As more people take genetic tests and upload their data to databases, they too could be caught in a "DNA dragnet," Bloomberg says. It notes that there's little oversight of how law enforcement uses genetic information, and one attorney tells it that judges in the US have not found genetic information to be protected under the Fourth Amendment strictures against unreasonable search and seizure. In an article in Science last week, University of Baltimore School of Law's Natalie Ram and Christi Guerrini and Amy McGuire from  Baylor College of Medicine, called on legislators to set limits and establish protections for law enforcement's use of genetic genealogy searches.

Police add that such genetic sleuthing is expensive and time consuming — a detective who worked on the Golden State Killer case tells Bloomberg that it took them four months of genealogy to home in on their suspect.

But Bloomberg notes there are additional efforts, including by Moore at Parabon to tease out leads in other cold cases.