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Justice Department lays out rules for using genealogy sites to solve cold cases

The DOJ says it will take people's privacy and civil liberties into account as it goes forward.

US-DNA-TESTING

With kits like Ancestry and 23andMe, people don't think twice before shipping off their DNA. 

Eric Baradat / AFP / Getty Images

The Department of Justice on Tuesday outlined a new interim policy regarding forensic genetic genealogy, an investigative method that involves using DNA and information on genealogy websites to help find unknown criminal suspects in cold cases, as well as identify the remains of homicide victims. The interim policy is designed to balance the department's goal of solving violent crimes with the public interest in privacy and civil liberties

Forensic genetic genealogy, or FGG, is a relatively new technique that starts by connecting DNA found at a crime scene with that of distant relatives who've created public profiles on genealogy websites. Last year, DNA testing led to a break in the Golden State Killer case, which had been unsolved since the '70s. Authorities dramatically narrowed their investigation using information on a free DNA and genealogy database called GEDMatch. This eventually led to the arrest of Joseph DeAngelo, who is linked to at least 13 homicides and more than 50 rapes across California in the 1970s and '80s.

Sacaramento DA Makes Major Announcement On Golden State Killer Case

Police taped off Joseph DeAngelo's home after his arrest last year.

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US Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen said that prosecuting violent crimes is a department priority in addition to ensuring public safety and bringing closure to victims and victims' families.

"We cannot fulfill our mission if we cannot identify the perpetrators," Rosen said in a statement. "Forensic genetic genealogy gets us that much closer to being able to solve the formerly unsolvable. But we must not prioritize this investigative advancement above our commitments to privacy and civil liberties; and that is why we have released our Interim Policy -- to provide guidance on maintaining that crucial balance."

Enthusiasm for the technique is tempered by the questions about privacy and whether people are aware that information uploaded to genealogy sites may be used by law enforcement. The interim policy offers guidance to law enforcement and lays out requirements for when FGG might be used. For example, law enforcement must try all other methods first, including a search of the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, before turning to geneaology websites. And if a geneaology site generates a lead in a case, law enforcement must then turn back to traditional investigation methods. 

The interim policy goes into effect on Nov. 1 with a final policy expected in 2020. 

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