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21 Oct 2018 6:26
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  •   Home > News > International

    Genetic genealogy databases can identify 60 per cent of people — even if they haven't been tested

    Police were led to the suspected Golden State Killer through a website that helps people build their family tree. New calculations show 60 per cent of people in the US with European descent can be identified the same way.

    The suspected Golden State Killer — a serial killer, rapist and burglar that terrorised California in the 1970s and 80s — wasn't pinpointed by fingerprints or eyewitness accounts.

    Police were led to him through a website that helps people build their family tree.

    Now, calculations published in the journal Science today suggest that 60 per cent of people in the United States with European descent can be identified the same way.

    And the way the genomic genealogy business is booming, that number is slated to jump to more than 90 per cent in the not-so-distant future.

    Only 2 per cent of a population needs to be on a genealogy database to link almost everyone to a third cousin.

    Researchers in the US and Israel also re-identified the owner of a publicly available genome in just one day by tracing her relatives through genealogy records.

    Study co-author Yaniv Erlich, a computational biologist and chief science officer of genealogy database MyHeritage, said that there are ways data managers can stop people from accessing genealogy databases for nefarious purposes, while still allowing law enforcement agencies to use them to solve cases.

    "I used to be a vulnerability researcher, so I'm always thinking about how vulnerabilities can be exploited," Dr Erlich said.

    From finding family to forensics

    Police have used DNA profiling to link people to crime scenes for decades, but that's different to the genetic information used in genealogy, said Caitlin Curtis, a genomics and privacy researcher at the University of Queensland who was not involved in the study.

    "Genealogy genetics uses what's called SNP chips, and they have somewhere around 700,000 genetic markers on them," Dr Curtis said.

    "A forensics database is run on a different type of marker, and many fewer — in the order of 20."

    So while forensics databases are excellent at figuring out if two DNA samples match or if they're closely related, they're not as useful for tracing distant relatives.

    This is where direct-to-consumer genealogy services shine — and they are big business.

    As of April this year, more than 15 million people have used genome testing kits, with 7 million of those conducted in 2017.

    While the companies that analyse SNP chips — such as 23andme, Ancestry and MyHeritage — don't make individuals' genetic data publicly available, users can download their genome and upload it to a third-party website to, for instance, search for relatives.

    These so-called "long-range familial searches" can find second or third cousins.

    And in recent years, law enforcement agencies have seen the benefits of these public databases.

    Most notorious was the April arrest of the suspected Golden State Killer Joseph DeAngelo, a 72-year-old former police officer.

    Police had DNA from DeAngelo's alleged crimes, but it didn't match with anyone in their forensic databases.

    So police uploaded the genome to a public genealogy database called GED-match. There, they found some of DeAngelo's relatives, and painstakingly reconstructed his family tree.

    This narrowed down their search for a suspect.

    DeAngelo appeared in their sights and law enforcement agencies got a warrant to covertly collect some of his DNA, which they matched to some of the old crime samples.

    Between April and August this year, at least 13 cases were reportedly solved with similar long-range familial searches.

    But what if a malicious person or organisation wanted to use the technique too?

    How to identify someone from their DNA

    This isn't Dr Erlich's first foray into genetic tracing. Five years ago, he was part of a group that could identify an unknown male using his Y chromosome.

    With the recent rise in genealogy databases, could they harness those resources to trace anyone from their genome?

    "Once we saw the success in catching the Golden State Killer, we thought we should quantify this success rate and think about strategies to mitigate misuse," Dr Erlich said.

    They started by downloading a genome from the 1000 Genomes research project, then re-formatted it to make it look like it was downloaded from a direct-to-consumer company.

    "That was five minutes' work," Dr Erlich said.

    The re-formatted file was uploaded to GED-match. This turned up two relatives whose distant relatives — a couple — were found in genealogical records.

    Then came the time-consuming part: manually tracing that couple's descendants.

    They had 10 children, so that was no mean feat. But after a day's work, the researchers hit on the person whose genome they started with.

    While it might be too late for the people in the 1000 Genomes project to lock down their DNA data — "it's been downloaded maybe tens of thousands of times by labs around the world," Dr Erlich said — there's a reasonably simple way to stop people from misusing sites like GED-match.

    A cryptographic signature would ensure that the genomic data being uploaded to the database was from a direct-to-consumer company, and not taken from a research repository, for instance.

    "We're not saying we shouldn't let law enforcement search databases, but instead have a conversation with them, find out if their request is legitimate, and then maybe you sign paperwork to let them do it," Dr Erlich said.

    Dr Curtis said that a technological platform will be an essential part of the solution, but "there won't be a magic bullet".

    "UNESCO developed guidelines around protecting genetic data, but it's really up to countries to enact the legislation," she said.

    "Australia's not implemented anything yet."

    An invasion of genetic privacy?

    An interesting effect of the rise of genealogy is that police now have access to a more comprehensive demographic spread of DNA, said University of Technology Sydney forensic geneticist Dennis McNevin.

    "Until this point, the only familial searches police could do was in criminal databases. That's a very small, skewed population, perhaps towards socially disadvantaged populations," he said.

    "Now, these genealogy databases, not only do they cover a much broader section of the population, the demographic is completely different."

    So what do people think about police using genealogy databases to close in on potential suspects?

    A US survey published last week found most respondents supported the practice, particularly when the purpose was to identify perpetrators of violent crimes and crimes against children.

    There's still a misconception that law enforcement agencies using a genealogy database means they're scrutinising your genome, but that's not the case, Professor McNevin said.

    "When police access these databases, they're not screening everyone's DNA — they're looking for a match," he said.

    He suspects that eventually, long-range familial searches will be widely accepted by the community, much like DNA profiling has been.

    "When DNA profiling first started 30 years ago, there were similar concerns that this would be some kind of genetic monitoring of the population," Professor McNevin said.

    "Now, the community has accepted that DNA profiling is essential to solving crimes."

    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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