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What is genome sleuthing? And is it lawful?

Jun 11, 2019 | Criminal law

Investigators have used DNA in criminal databases to help solve cases for decades. What is being pulled into these databases is increasing and raises privacy issues. Could a cheek swab to trace your roots through a service like or 23andMe mean your biological information is public? Many people say yes in hopes of finding out more about where they came from and distant relatives.

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Previously, DNA testing was generally limited to first identifying an accused suspect and then proving enough evidence existed to get a warrant for a legal search. When this information is already out in the public domain, however, law enforcement agencies do not need to go through the same process and can troll through these databases.


There are more than a million people who have already voluntarily provided DNA samples from private testing into the public DNA database known as GEDMatch. It was this database where law enforcement used a familial search to be able to identify the Golden State Killer.

Genetic genealogists will use the DNA in the database along with genealogical, census, and bio records, to be able to create a family tree and help identify an unidentified suspect. This provides the possibility of someone being matched through a family member who has never submitted their DNA for testing. Once this information is obtained, law enforcement will then need to obtain a DNA sample from the suspect in order to match them with the case.

Why genome sleuthing can cause harm as well as good

One of the major issues that genome sleuthing can lead to is needless investigations that have the potential to turn the lives of innocent people upside down. You leave small amounts of DNA almost everywhere you go. During the DNA search for the Golden State Killer case, DNA led investigators through a partial Y match to a man in a nursing home who had no link to the crime.

The other main issues are constitutionally protected privacy rights. If unregulated, where does genome sleuthing stop? Will law enforcement eventually start swabbing for DNA during routine traffic stops? If your family member puts his or her DNA in a database, could it mean law enforcement or other parties might be able to use it to force you to provide a sample?

Genetic material should be even more safeguarded, as it is one of the most unique forms of personal information. It can tell you more about a person than their medical records, which already have significant protections. A court might not allow DNA evidence in a case, if the way in which it was collected or identified breached an individual’s rights.

The only way to protect yourself in the criminal justice system is to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney who can build a strong defense and adequately address these potential issues. Until new laws provide better regulation and respect for privacy, it is crucial to immediately seek legal counsel if approached about providing a DNA sample.