The Genealogy Dilemma: Balancing Privacy and Public Safety

DNA strands with black, white, and red background

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The intersection of genealogy, privacy, and safety has become a hotly debated topic in criminal investigations. The use of genealogy databases has become more prevalent with recent advancements in DNA technology. While these databases have proven helpful in solving cold cases and tracking down suspects, the potential ethical and privacy issues they raise have led to increased scrutiny and debate. Specifically, concerns have been raised regarding the potential for individuals and families to become unknowingly caught up in criminal investigations without giving their consent or even being aware that their genetic data has been shared.

The Advantages of Using Genealogy Databases in Criminal Investigations

One of the most significant advantages of using genealogy databases in criminal investigations is the efficiency and effectiveness of the technology. In 2018, the Golden State Killer was finally caught after being on the run for over 40 years, thanks to a genealogy database. In the Golden State Killer case, a distant relative of the killer had uploaded their DNA to, a public DNA database. The police used this database to find people who shared some DNA segments with the killer and traced their family trees to identify possible suspects. The DNA evidence was crucial in catching the Golden State Killer. DNA evidence was also crucial in identifying the suspect, Gary Ridgway, in the Green River Killer case. The police had obtained a saliva sample from Ridgway in 1987, but at the time, DNA technology was not advanced enough to match his DNA with the semen found on some of the victims. It was not until 2001, with new DNA analysis methods, that his DNA was finally matched with the crime scene evidence. Ridgway was arrested and later confessed to 48 murders. Both of these cases show the importance of DNA evidence in solving crimes and how advancements in DNA technology have revolutionized criminal investigations. Whether it is a distant relative’s DNA on a public database or a saliva sample from a suspect, DNA evidence can be the key to catching criminals and bringing justice to victims and their families.

Privacy Concerns Regarding the Use of Genealogy Databases in Criminal Investigations

However, using genealogy databases in criminal investigations also raises important privacy concerns. Individuals and families may be caught up in criminal investigations without their knowledge or consent, and their personal information may be used in ways they never intended. Additionally, there are concerns about the potential for misuse and abuse of the information in genealogy databases and the ethical implications of using this technology in criminal investigations.

Another aspect to consider when discussing the use of genealogy databases in criminal investigations is the potential for misuse and abuse of the information. While genealogy databases can be valuable for solving crimes, they can also be used unethically and illegally.

One example of this is the use of genealogy databases for “genetic surveillance.” This occurs when law enforcement agencies use genealogy databases to track down individuals who are not suspected of any crime but are related to someone who is. This could include family members, friends, or even distant relatives. This type of surveillance raises serious privacy concerns and can be seen as a violation of individual rights.

Another example of unethical use of genealogy databases is when it is used to stalk or harass individuals. Genealogy databases can be used to find information on an individual’s family members, friends, and even their current location. This misuse can be incredibly dangerous and lead to serious harm.

Don’t get it twisted; using genealogy databases in criminal investigations is a complex issue that requires careful consideration of the ethical and legal implications. Clear guidelines and regulations for using genealogy databases in criminal investigations must be established to protect privacy and safety and prevent any misuse or abuse of the information.


Balancing scales representing the tension between DNA molecules - black, red, and white

Potential Downsides of Using DNA in Criminal Investigations

Let’s take a look at some of the potential downsides of using DNA in criminal investigations:

  • Some countries have attempted to enact a mandatory DNA database for all citizens, which violates their privacy and consent rights.
  • Some forensic DNA databases contain profiles of ethnic minorities or immigrants not representative of the general population, which may lead to discrimination and false matches.
  • Some DNA databases may contain errors or contamination that can affect the reliability and accuracy of the results.

Specific Cases Highlighting Legal and Ethical Issues Related to DNA Databases

  • In S. and Marper v. the United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the indefinite retention of DNA profiles and samples of innocent people by the UK police was a violation of their right to privacy. 
  • In 2022, a federal lawsuit was filed against New York City for operating an illegal and unregulated DNA database that contained profiles of more than 31,000 people who were never convicted of any crime. The lawsuit claimed the database violated due process rights and disproportionately targeted Black and Latino communities. (read more)


Using DNA can be unethical and illegal in many ways. It can violate people’s privacy, autonomy, and presumption of innocence and may result in false accusations or wrongful convictions. Additionally, it can reflect biases based on race or ethnicity and be misused or abused by unauthorized parties. Examples like S. and Marper v. the United Kingdom and the federal lawsuit against New York City highlight DNA databases’ legal and ethical concerns.

The debate over the use of genealogy databases in criminal investigations is ongoing, with different perspectives on the issue. Some argue that the benefits of solving cold cases and bringing criminals to justice outweigh the privacy concerns. In contrast, others argue that the use of genealogy databases in criminal investigations is a violation of individual rights and privacy.

Balancing Privacy and Public Safety When Using Genealogy Databases in Criminal Investigations

One possible solution to balancing privacy and public safety when using genealogy databases in criminal investigations is to implement clear guidelines and regulations for their use. This could include measures to protect the privacy of individuals and families, as well as efforts to ensure that the information in genealogy databases is used responsibly and ethically. Additionally, transparency and accountability are essential when using genealogy databases in criminal investigations, and law enforcement agencies should be required to disclose how they are using this technology.

So, we’ve seen that genealogy databases have helped solve a lot of cases that have gone cold for years. That’s great news, right? Well, not so fast. Some serious ethical and privacy issues come with using these databases. We must consider how we can balance privacy and safety when using this technology. It may be time for some clear rules and regulations to ensure that we’re using genealogy databases in the right way. 

So, what do you think? If you were in a position to decide, would you prioritize public safety over privacy concerns when using genealogy databases in criminal investigations, or do you think we need to approach this issue with more caution and consideration? What factors would you take into account when making such a decision?

Resources for additional reading

  1. “DNA databank (United States)” (Wikipedia):
  2. “Privacy, DNA Testing, and Genealogy Databases” (Council for Responsible Genetics):
  3. “DNA Privacy: What You Need to Know” (Consumer Reports):
  4. “DNA and Your Privacy” (American Civil Liberties Union):

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Donielle Lavern

Donielle Lavern

Donielle Lavern, founder of True Crime Talks. We believe in fostering meaningful discourse and sparking thought-provoking conversations. Our aim is to tackle a wide range of topics, both popular and controversial, while engaging in open and honest discussions with our audience. We are dedicated to driving change through meaningful conversation and empowering our community to start their own.

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