Investigative Genetic Genealogy, a New and Contested Method for Catching Criminals

By: Lexie Baughman, Sareen Manuel, Eunice Nguyen, Krishna Shah, and Ethan Yi

Sending off your saliva to a direct-to-consumer genetic testing company may be more incriminating than you think.

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Perhaps you have never purchased a direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic test, or perhaps you have because you were excited to learn more about yourself and your history. In either case, it is possible that you were not made aware of the implications of submitting your DNA in this way. One of these is the possibility of law enforcement accessing your ancestry information, based on your genetic profile, to catch criminals.

Relying on collaboration between law enforcement, direct-to-consumer companies, and third party genetic genealogy websites, this method, known as investigative genetic genealogy (IGG), has proven very effective in solving cases that traditional methods could not and delivering overdue justice for victims. Despite this, a number of concerns regarding this approach have been raised, many of which are at the intersection of biology and society.

This was the inspiration for our capstone project, which, in the form of a magazine, presents an in-depth and interdisciplinary analysis of IGG. We do this by first describing the step-by-step process of IGG, with supplementary information on the biology and technology underlying direct-to-consumer genetic tests and genetic genealogy, and comparing it to more traditional methods of criminal investigation. Following this, we focus on the ethical, legal, and social implications of IGG. Although the often cited concerns with IGG are in terms of privacy and informed consent, we broaden the ethical debate by considering IGG at the collective level as well. We also analyzed laws, regulations, and company policies to better understand and contextualize these arguments. Finally, we consider public opinion of IGG as a rising criminology method and how public support can be influenced by education and transparency.

Altogether, this was done with two goals in mind: not only do we want to provide readers with the information needed to form their own opinions of IGG, but we want to inform consumers of what they may be agreeing to when purchasing a DTC genetic test. We hope you think, discuss, and enjoy!

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