Thursday, September 21, 2023

You have the right to remain silent. DNA does not.

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Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

Sit down as this one can be hard to hear. There are upstairs 26 million Full-fledged DNA sequences have been registered in the United States alone, and by that number alone there is one 90% chance that there is at least one fully sequenced genome floating around that can be traced back to you.

Whether it was that 23andMe test you took to find out what percent Irish you are, or a medically prescribed preventive screening, or that of a relative, far away or not, your records are in the books.

Typically, such data would be guaranteed confidential by a concrete and durable federal privacy policy known as HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), without debate. However, that seemingly definitive line isn’t so clear cut when it comes to your genetic data.

You wouldn’t be the first to learn that there’s one database named of GEDMatch in which virtually every piece of genetic data ever collected finds its way.

In case you weren’t already feeling wonderfully safe, you might take comfort in knowing that this data isn’t just for the public to see. However, what can and does happen is that individuals can upload recent results of their genetic testing and find familial matches, hence the name GEDMatch. As sane as that may sound, reality steps in and we realize that just as a long-lost relative can follow you to a perfect reunion, so can the police.

Currently, there are virtually no laws, federal or otherwise, governing the severity of crime that would warrant the use of genetic data by the police or the FBI. Because of this serious policy deficiency, if your DNA becomes available in any way, you have inadvertently consented to police investigation of your DNA in any capacity. However, as a potential carrier of the breast cancer-inducing BRCA 1+2 genes, I cannot reasonably condemn the use of necessary forms of genetic testing. And I shouldn’t – with such hugely helpful advances in genetic technology in preventive medicine, fear of criminal prosecution or some other harmful invasion of privacy should discourage anyone from being careful about their health in this way. Unfortunately, for one criminal, this fear became a reality.

November 2018, someone broke into a church in Centerville, Utah and attacked an organist who was practicing there. On arrival at the scene, police took a sample of the perpetrator’s blood found on a window they had shattered before carrying out the attack. When the sample was analyzed via GEDMatch, police were able to identify an individual with a distant relative living in Centerville, a 17-year-old male high school student. All it took to confirm their findings and charge the suspect was for the school’s employee to recover the student’s discarded juice box and test the residue on the straw for a DNA match.

For this student, establishing strong evidence against him through genetic testing seemed like an invasion not only of his privacy, but that of the distant relative whose data was used to locate him. As an otherwise non-violent, relatively low-risk suspect, such concrete evidence has undoubtedly exacerbated his fallout and reduced his chances of smoothly returning to high school life in order to have the chance to be steered on a successful path.

Despite the alarm raised by the unregulated use of genetic data in criminal investigations, there have been and will be criminal investigations where DNA matching solves a longstanding cold case, particularly those involving violent criminals. Most recently, on April 24, 2019, police identified the perpetrator in a 42-year car chase called “The Golden State Killer” case, a series of serial murders and rapes targeting young women across Southern California. Without a doubt, this is the kind of person the general public would like to see locked up at the expense of some sort of criminal investigation, which clearly justifies genetic testing.

So while genetics can rightfully be applied in such high-stakes cases, unanswered questions still remain about the role of genetics in lower caliber criminal investigations. As of now, it’s clear that genetic engineering isn’t going anywhere. and with data being collected on a larger segment of the population than ever before, there is no better time for standards and legislation to take into account the extent to which genetic information can be applied in criminal investigations. Without such a policy, law enforcement will only be more encouraged to take advantage of the available resources.

In reality, your genetic information is out there somewhere, whether you like it or not. And maybe the police can have it. But not without public debate.

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