by Nina de Groot
de Groot, N. F. (2023). Commercial genetic information and criminal investigations: The case for social privacy. Big Data & Society, 10(2).
In 2022, four college students from the University of Idaho were stabbed to death. Law enforcement found DNA at the crime scene that probably originated from the murder suspect, but the DNA profile did not match with the FBI database of criminal offenders. The FBI then used, according to the prosecution, another method: searching in a public genetic genealogy database for relatives of the unknown suspect. Weeks later, they were, most likely based on this lead, able to arrest a suspect. By building extensive family trees of the unknown suspect and the DNA test consumer who is genetically related to the suspect, one can eventually zero in on the suspect by mapping genetic relationships and examining birth and death certificates or social media profiles. This so-called ‘investigative genetic genealogy’ is increasingly used in both the US and Europe.
Investigative genetic genealogy may have significant potential when it comes to crime-solving. Yet, the debate on investigative genetic genealogy tends to be reduced into a dichotomy between protecting privacy on the one hand and serving society by solving horrendous crimes, on the other. As the CEO of a commercial genetic genealogy database has said: “You have a right to privacy. You also have the right not to be murdered or raped”. However, reducing it to this dichotomy is problematic.
In my paper ‘Commercial genetic information and criminal investigations: The case for social privacy’, I propose to consider investigative genetic genealogy through the lens of social privacy. Social privacy is a helpful way to look beyond this simplified dichotomous choice. For example, it is not only about the privacy of the individual DNA-test consumer, but about the privacy of potentially thousands of genetic relatives. If one individual DNA test consumer gives consent to law enforcement use of their data, this person does so for many close and distant relatives.
Perhaps more importantly, a social privacy approach allows for the consideration of broader social- political concerns of investigative genetic genealogy. For example, it allows us to explore the complex issues when it comes to commercial parties entering the scene of criminal investigations, including dependence on commercial actors. Commercial companies currently have a major say in deciding in which crimes to allow (and not allow) law enforcement use of their database. Additionally, public forensic laboratories often do not have the technology to generate the type of DNA profile needed, which leads to the dependence of law enforcement on private actors in this process. Furthermore, investigative genetic genealogy could have problematic consequences for the relationship between citizens and state as well as for the public nature of criminal investigations.
A social privacy approach can also help shed a light on the implications for criminal investigations and the democratic process. Namely, if only a few percent of a population gives consent for law enforcement use of their DNA data, almost every individual within that population can be identified through distant relatives. Therefore, the decisions of only a fraction of the population can have far- reaching implications, reflecting a potentially harmful ‘tyranny of the minority’, which is a concept from digital data ethics. In that respect, insights from the social privacy debate on the interconnectedness of data for the online digital data debate, can be useful for exploring these issues in the context of investigative genetic genealogy.