May 30, 2024

Genetic privacy eroding fast with growth of ancestry databases

‘Forensic geneology’ is of great interest to police

Back in April came the stunning news that a 30-year-old cold case may have been solved in California using “forensic geneology”. A man believed to be the Golden State Killer, who was responsible for at least 12 murders and more than 50 rapes between 1976 and 1986, was arrested after investigators used publicly available ancestry databases to track him down. His own profile had not been posted, but profiles of some of his relatives had been. 

As a statistical geneticist has noted: “You are a beacon who illuminates 300 people around you.”

From April to August, the use of the technique has exploded. More than a dozen cases have been solved, even though a number of bioethicists expressed serious reservations about the possibility of invasion of genetic privacy.

But two papers published this week in Science and Cell suggest that the technique will become much more powerful very quickly. The team responsible for the paper in Science estimated that at the moment about 60% of the searches for individuals of European-descent will result in a third cousin or closer match, which can allow their identification using demographic identifiers.” But it will become even more accurate. They add: “Moreover, the technique could implicate nearly any US-individual of European-descent in the near future.”

They also demonstrate that it is possible to identify the participants in a sequencing project if the data is publicly available. 

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