Will other people's DNA samples put your privacy in jeopardy?

A method made by Stanford University scientists could be used by UK police experts claim

When police find a DNA sample that does not match anyone in their database, a criminal investigation can come to a dead end.

The researchers said that there are several public genetic databases that contain DNA information.

Users of the platform can create family trees, upload and browse through photos, and search billions of global historical records, among other features.

Dave Curtis, who is an honorary professor at UCL's Genetics Institute and the Centre of Psychiatry at Queen Mary University of London, said: "This could be easily done in the United Kingdom, it's very doable, all it takes is for people to make a genetic profile on these databases and agree to be contacted by people who match with them".

For the study published Thursday, researchers analyzed the DNA data of the 1.28 million people in the MyHeritage database.

Unlike GEDMatch (1.1 million files), other sites like Ancestry (10 million) and 23andMe (5 million) are not open to public searches.

Rosenberg hopes his study "will help catalyze a conversation among many different stakeholders in forensic genetics, genetic privacy and ancestry testing".

This is all done through a technique called long-range familial search, which allows researchers to match an anonymous individual's DNA to distant relatives.

"We found that once a genetic database covers roughly 2 percent of the adult population, a match of a third cousin or closer is expected for nearly all persons of interest", Carmi said in a statement. Third cousins share great-great-grandparents.

Parabon's researchers work assiduously using publically available data (genealogy websites, Facebook accounts, LinkedIn profiles, obituaries, etc) to rebuild family trees and identify possible suspects. That's limited enough that police could zero in with further investigation, Erlich said.

Erlich and his co-authors suggested that such searches could cast a broader net in the near future.

They were able to find third cousins or even closer relatives for 60 percent of those with mostly European ancestry. So the team checked to see how many relatives on the order of a third cousin or closer they could find for each individual in their data set.

"Because the average person has so many of these distant cousins, it becomes reasonably probable that one or more of them is in a publicly searchable database, even if only a small fraction of the USA population is included", Graham Coop and Michael Edge of the University of California, Davis, wrote in a statement to The Associated Press.

"The fact that most suspects could be identified in this way is predictable" from mathematical calculations, and the new paper provides a convincing demonstration, they said.

Overall, the report suggests that clear policies for law enforcement in using long-range familial searches, and respecting the autonomy of participants in genetic studies, are necessary components for long-term sustainability of the genomics ecosystem. And under what circumstances should they be permitted? You never know, someone might be able to track you down just because you fourth cousin whom you've never heard of took a consumer DNA test.

A scientist at Israeli genealogy firm MyHeritage has published a paper revealing that public genealogy databases can identify relatives - third cousins and closer - in almost two-thirds of people of European descent.

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. "But you still have some invasion into that person's personal life by being investigated". Since then, debate has swirled around the ethics of using genealogy websites to aid in forensic investigations.

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

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

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