Ethics and solving crime with stored DNA


Sunday, June 24, 2018

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IF you are very concerned about the pervasive crime and violence in our society and would love to see the perpetrators of such crime not only apprehended, but summarily convicted of their crime, then you are likely to be in the corner of those in support of DNA left at a crime scene being checked against people's DNA obtained through various sources and stored in a repository or database.

If you are very strong in your beliefs about personal privacy, autonomy, and human rights, then you are likely to be in the corner of strong limitations and strict regulations regarding the use of people's DNA being used in any database for crime detection when it was not ostensibly collected for such use.

Genealogy DNA test

A genealogy DNA test looks at the specific locations of a person's genome (set of genes within a cell) in order to determine ancestral ethnicity and family relationships. In the USA, however, law enforcement agencies have been dipping into consumer genealogy DNA databases to help solve crimes. This resulted in the famous arrest in April of a 72-year-old man suspected of being the so-called Golden State killer, a serial rapist and murderer who committed at least 12 murders, more than 50 rapes, and more than 100 burglaries in California during the period 1974-1986.

In using that database, police detectives were able to compare DNA from several of the crime scenes against online DNA-genealogy data, and so tracked down the suspect. Although US investigators had long been using DNA for forensic purposes, prior to that they had typically compared samples only to databases that were created specifically for criminal justice purposes.

Ethical debate

Using people's DNA in ways that they had not intended, however, raises serious ethical issues. In those countries, it is unclear whether subscribers to online genealogy sites know that their DNA is being made available to criminal investigators, and whether they would object to it being used for that purpose.

This has caused a divisive debate in some societies since, on one hand, the DNA technology provides a powerful tool to help solve criminal cases, but it simultaneously raises questions for consumers since they upload their data for genealogy purposes, which may then be used in other ways without the person's knowledge and agreement. Further, the terms of service agreements by the online sites do not explain this issue clearly, and even if they did, many persons would not read it since it is customarily written in dense legal jargon.

Body samples and consent

In the realms of scientific and medical work, individuals who provide their body samples have clear expectations of informed consent. They presume health personnel will ask permission, and they may or may not give consent to any wide array of scientific use.

On the other hand, genealogy inquiries are sometimes done for entertainment purposes, and persons may not realise that uploading their DNA could possibly result in the arrest of their cousin for a crime committed in that jurisdiction. So the use of DNA information may have consequences beyond the person who uploaded the information. It may also mistakenly identify innocent people due to potential false-positives results. Consequently, to minimise the latter, when investigators conduct forensics research with genealogy DNA, they may also interview their suspects and contact relatives to obtain more information.

Under what is termed 'legal theory', in some jurisdictions people have no reasonable expectation of privacy for personal materials such as hair, nail clippings, or cigarette butts which they have abandoned. Consequently, courts have allowed law enforcement officials to test DNA left behind in various settings, and so it could be argued that since some persons voluntarily upload their DNA into online commercial databases, the legal implications are simpler to understand than the deeper associated ethical issues.

The way forward

The answer in this ethical quagmire may revolve around the need for a commitment to transparency. Persons should be aware of how law enforcement agencies conduct forensic DNA searching and how they use the data gathered. In turn, the policing agencies should adopt standards that are formalised, as well as mechanisms for accountability. Policymakers should also consider placing some restrictions on the use of DNA evidence so that it becomes an investigative tool rather than as a primary source of evidence.

Further, persons should think carefully before uploading their genealogy data. They should consider the risks versus the possible benefits, and be comfortable with the idea that the police may use their information to solve crimes. We all wish a drastic reduction in crime within our society, but the means used in doing so should be transparent and fair to all members of our society.

Dr Derrick Aarons MD, PhD, is a Jamaican family physician and consultant bioethicist; a specialist in ethical issues in health care, research, and the life sciences; and is the health registrar and head of the health secretariat for the Turks & Caicos Islands.

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