The Ethics of DNA Testing: Ancestry and crime

The Ethics of DNA Testing: Ancestry and crime

Law enforcement has been able to solve a number of “cold cases” in recent years, thanks to the evolution of DNA forensics. Simply put, DNA from a crime scene is analyzed and that analysis is run through a database of existing criminals’ DNA to search for a match. Up until recently, a major limitation of the technology has been this: a suspect must already be in a criminal database in order to make a match. First-time or “un-caught” criminals would not be identified through DNA forensics.

Until now.

On DNA Day – April 25, 2018 – an alleged serial killer was arrested following DNA analysis of materials from a crime scene were matched with a suspected relative through an ancestry DNA database.

That case led to a slew of similar arrests, where DNA was used to identify a suspect through familial ties.

While we can all probably agree we would like killers to be caught, tried and prosecuted, bioethicists believe the approach used in this case raises several ethical issues for consideration.

HudsonAlpha bioethicist Dr. Thomas May recently had an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine that addresses those issues. We’ve recapped it below.

The arrest of the alleged Golden State Killer on DNA Day brought closure to the victims’ families and law enforcement – but at what price? And what do we need to consider doing differently when utilizing DNA to identify suspects of crimes?

The suspect in the Golden State Killer cases was identified through a relative who had submitted DNA to a direct-to-consumer genetic test that analyzes DNA to identify nations of origin as well as familial relatives in its database. Law enforcement basically traced the “DNA family tree” from DNA left at crime scenes. That family tree led them to a suspect who fit some of the parameters of the crime and who lived in the right region of the country. Officers recovered some of the man’s trash, took a DNA sample, and allegedly matched the DNA from the crime scenes.

Basically, a lack of understanding about the vastly different approaches to genetic privacy allowed, in part, for the capture of the suspect.

As a nation, our regulatory approach to privacy in direct-to-consumer genealogic testing has permitted the creation of a Wild West environment. We have found ways to create privacy for medical information through HIPAA and for health research subjects through Common Rule. Therefore, some level of protection should be possible. Although there is no way to guarantee privacy, surely there are ways to mitigate risk.

For example, regulatory oversight to increase privacy, determine who would be allowed to submit another’s DNA sample for testing, and guide the drawing of inferences from DNA results – particularly for those who are not the source, but who may be implicated by the results – would add a level of protection.

At the end of the day, while we might all like the idea of allowing DNA testing to be used to catch violent criminals, are we willing to give up our privacy? Do we want to continue to allow others to submit DNA for testing that isn’t theirs? Would you like a total stranger to send hair from your hairbrush to a private company, get your DNA analyzed, and put your genetic profile online – all without your knowledge?

Food for thought.

Dr. Thomas May raises interesting points here, ones that we need to consider before these practices become too commonplace to change course. After all, the technique has already been used in at least a half-dozen arrests in cold cases across the country.

How do we compare the risks of sharing our genomic information against the benefits it may provide? As we barrel full speed toward a much deeper understanding of our own genomes, we also need to realize they are perhaps the most fundamental piece of our identity. In the same way we would protect the pin on our debit card, we should consider how we can protect the code that unlocks our identity. Simultaneously, we need to balance personal privacy against the issues of safety and criminal justice. It’s a complicated landscape that we find ourselves entering.

To schedule a media interview with Dr. Neil Lamb or to invite him to speak at an event or conference, please contact Margetta Thomas by email at or by phone: Office (256) 327-0425 | Cell (256) 937-8210