TAMPA, Fla. (FOX 13) - The new frontier of detective work is genetic genealogy - using DNA profiles submitted to genealogy websites to track down criminals, and the federal government is releasing new guidelines for how it’s used.
The arrest of the suspected golden state killer revealed to the nation how law enforcement connected the dots between DNA found at crime scenes with a name. Starting with the DNA of a distant family member, whose information was in a genealogy database, was enough of a match to the criminal's DNA that detectives were able to narrow down a list of possible suspects.
Just this month, the alleged Daytona Beach serial killer wast caught using DNA, genetic genealogy, and good detective work.
“It’s a lead to help further the investigation or the possibility of furthering the investigation, and it would clear all the people who had nothing to do with the crime,” said George Loydgren, a detective with the major case section of the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office.
Loydgren said the sheriff’s office used DNA genealogy analysis to help solve a 1983 sexual battery case in January.
“I guarantee you, most of the people who are doing these ancestry [websites] have never been arrested or incarcerated and gave their DNA, so we’re getting regular people who are helping us find these people that shouldn’t be around society, murderers and rapists,” said Loydgren.
There are concerns, however, about balancing privacy. This week, the U.S. Department of Justice released an interim policy to guide for agencies conducting genetic genealogy to track down criminals. The 8-page document lays out criteria law enforcement must meet before turning to DNA databases.
“There have to be rules in place for it. Obviously, just a quick little synopsis of the rules, [it] pretty much seems like what we do now in law enforcement,” said Loydgren.
Currently, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement runs DNA tests for the state and stores results in a national database.
“If that person has never left their DNA anywhere before or they’re a first-time offender, you’re never going to find them in a database,” said Loydgren.
So if that doesn’t pan out, some agencies turn to an alternative method to find a lead.
“These outside genealogy companies are priceless because it opens up the door to millions of people to help us find the right person that we never would’ve before,” said Loydgren.
The DOJ said it wants law enforcement to exhaust all options before turning to DNA genealogy. The interim policy goes into effect November 1, and the DOJ will issue final guidelines next year.
Until then, the DNA testing industry continues to grow and each company deals with customers' data differently.
Familytreedna.com says it allows law enforcement and third parties, on a case-by-case basis, to upload the DNA information of a deceased person or suspected perpetrators in an effort to identify them.
The two largest DNA testing companies, 23andMe and AncestryDNA say they will only allow law enforcement access to a customer's DNA information if compelled by law under court order.
GEDMatch is not a DNA testing company. It operates an open database of DNA profiles which are uploaded by users for the purpose of open-source familial research. DNA profiles uploaded to GEDMatch are typically obtained from other companies like 23andMe or AncestryDNA.
Law enforcement said they used GEDMatch to develop leads in the case of the Golden State Killer.