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New DOJ policy limits how authorities can use genealogy services to solve crimes

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Posted at 8:35 AM, Sep 26, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-26 11:40:34-04

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has released its first set of rules limiting how law enforcement can use popular genealogy websites, like 23andMe and Ancestry, to help solve cold cases.

The DOJ announced the interim policy over forensic genetic genealogy (FGG) Tuesday, saying that the new rules are designed to balance the department’s commitment to solving violent crimes and preserving the privacy and civil liberties of all citizens.

FGG is a unique investigative method that can generate leads used by authorities to not only identify unknown suspects but to help identify the remains of homicide victims. Authorities turn to FGG when DNA taken from crime scenes don’t match samples in the FBI’s database and all other investigative techniques have been exhausted.

After a vender laboratory completes a comprehensive analysis on a DNA sample, the resulting genetic profile is entered into one or more publicly available genetic genealogy services and compared by automation against the genetic profiles of individuals who have voluntarily submitted their own samples. The computer’s algorithm then evaluates potential familial relationships between the sample donor and the website’s users.

If an association is detected, it generates a lead. Subsequently, law enforcement can use that lead to advance their investigation using traditional investigative and genealogical methods.

Authorities say this investigative technique has helped solve several cold cases. Most notably, it was used to help track down an alleged serial rapist and murderer, dubbed the Golden State Killer .

The DOJ’s new interim policy contains nine sections that lay out critical requirements for the use of FGG by law enforcement, including the collaborative interdisciplinary use of the technique, the criteria a case must meet in order to use FGG, and how the practice is used to generate leads for unsolved crimes.

“Prosecuting violent crimes is a Department priority for many reasons, including to ensure public safety and to bring justice and closure to victims and victims’ families,” said Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen. “We cannot fulfill our mission if we cannot identify the perpetrators. Forensic genetic genealogy gets us that much closer to being able to solve the formerly unsolvable. But we must not prioritize this investigative advancement above our commitments to privacy and civil liberties; and that is why we have released our Interim Policy – to provide guidance on maintaining that crucial balance.”

The department’s policy will go into effect on Nov. 1, 2019 and a final department policy on FGG will be issued in 2020.