STATEWIDE – Part I of Chain Reaction showed how genealogy databases can bring police one step closer to solving cold cases.
But how exactly can law enforcement use these tools, and if you’ve taken a DNA test, should you be concerned about your privacy?
“Pandora’s Box has been opened,” said Peter Smith, a genealogist.
DNA tests aren’t just solving mysteries in your family tree.
“DNA is the future,” said Smith, who is also the president of the Maine Genealogical Society.
Smith says while most people taking DNA tests want to find out more about their relatives or ethnicity, they could also be helping authorities solve cold cases. It’s something he and members of his DNA interest group support.
“If we had a family member that was a victim of a crime, especially of a terrible crime, I would want that person brought to justice,” Smith said. “And I would hope that anyone could use any tool available to catch them.”
Kimberly McLaughlin agrees.
She hopes the new method can be used to track down the person who killed her cousin, Pamela Campbell, nearly four decades ago.
“If this voluntary database opens up opportunities, then let’s do it,” said McLaughlin.
But some worry about the possible violations of privacy in using a genealogy database for law enforcement purposes.
“There’s always that worry that someone’s going to get a hold of your data,” said McLaughlin.
At the Maine State Police Crime Lab, Lieutenant Scott Gosselin says some of those concerns stem from misconceptions about how police access the databases.
He says state authorities can only search through the state and federal Combined DNA Index Systems, or CODIS. When it comes to consulting a genealogy database, police abide by the same rules as anyone else.
“We could upload a profile for a cost to a particular company to do that,” said Lt. Gosselin. “It’s nothing we have access to here in the state of Maine, it’s nothing that we have a back channel hallway (to.)”
A genealogy database may help identify suspects, but police say finding a partial match doesn’t completely replace traditional investigative techniques.
“You can’t then go ahead and arrest somebody,” said Alicia Wilcox, PhD, a Husson forensic science professor who also worked for the state police. “But that would be an avenue for maybe an interview, possible search warrants.”
“Those databases and those different techniques and even CODIS aren’t really effective if you don’t have a good DNA profile,” said Lt. Gosselin.
According to Smith, the databases are voluntary, meaning your data will only show up on sites like Ancestry.com or 23andMe if you submit it yourself.
Smith says each genealogy site uses DNA differently, and it’s important to know a company’s rules before you sign up.
“Most people just clink accept and go on,” Smith said. “You do have to keep that in mind, that there are different privacy rules that are in those fine print details.”
Those rules are constantly being adapted.
Just this week, the popular genealogy database GEDMatch, which has been used in dozens of cases, announced it’s giving users a choice to opt in to letting police access their data.
Smith suspects more changes are on the way.
“DNA is advancing faster than the laws or the rules that need to be applied,” Smith said.
But for the most part, both law enforcement and genealogists are optimistic.
“It’s something that’s opened up the field of investigation,” Wilcox said.
It’s providing a glimmer of hope, that could finally bring justice to Pamela Campbell and her family.
“I would love to see the murderer caught that killed my cousin,” McLaughlin said. “Sometimes things work out well, sometimes they don’t, but I don’t know, it’s all in the search.”