This article is part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University. On March 20, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., about how law enforcement is using genetic genealogy—thanks to consumer DNA testing—to solve crime. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
Imagine the federal government enacted a law requiring all U.S. residents to provide law enforcement with their DNA profile so police could solve more crimes. Would you be OK with such a system?
Imagine instead that the federal government established a database for which people could volunteer genetic profiles—but that the decision about whether to volunteer your DNA belonged not to you, but to your third cousin. Would you be OK with that?
Whether you like it or not, the United States has effectively already adopted this second system. Since April 2018, law enforcement investigations stemming from DNA searches in consumer genetics databases have led to nearly three dozen arrests. In every case, those ultimately arrested did not actually upload their own genetic profiles to any database. Rather, they were identified through partial matches between crime scene DNA samples and the genetic profiles of often-distant relatives shared on consumer platforms like GEDmatch or FamilyTreeDNA. By one estimate, more than 60 percent of Americans of European descent are already identifiable through the DNA of a third cousin or closer on one of these platforms, and nearly all such Americans may be findable soon. Meanwhile, Parabon Nanolabs, the leading private company selling genetic genealogy services to law enforcement, claims that it can identify criminal suspects out to ninth-degree relatives (e.g., fourth cousins)—widening the genetic web of indirect database inclusion still further.
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