Published: Sun, October 14, 2018
Medical | By Johnnie Horton

Can most Americans be identified by a relative’s DNA? Maybe soon

Can most Americans be identified by a relative’s DNA? Maybe soon

About 60 percent of the USA population with European heritage may be identifiable from their DNA by searching consumer websites, even if they've never made their own genetic information available, a study estimates. The GEDmatch search identified a 3rd-degree cousin.

"I used to be a vulnerability researcher, so I'm always thinking about how vulnerabilities can be exploited", Dr Erlich said. A database with DNA profiles of just 2 percent of a population is enough to match almost everybody with somebody who's as closely related as a third cousin, researchers said.

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

By comparing the DNA of all three relatives, Erlich's team was able to find a common ancestral couple that were the Utah woman's great-grandparents.

Then they uploaded his DNA sample to a free website called GEDmatch, which allows users to post DNA test results in text format. They found two: one in North Dakota and one in Wyoming.

They had 10 children, so that was no mean feat.

Yaniv Erlich, Tal Shor, Itsik Pe'er, and Shai Carmi, who are affiliated with online genealogy platform MyHeritage, as well as Columbia University, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the New York Genome Center, last Thursday published a report in Science Magazine (Identity inference of genomic data using long-range familial searches) suggesting that as DNA databases continue to grow, investigators will be able to identify anyone in the U.S. given a sample of their DNA.

"Therefore, even if a specific individual is not in these databases, a relative of theirs could be, which is enough to identify them".

Amy McGuire, a professor of biomedical ethics at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said that police searches using DNA and genealogy websites have sometimes pointed to an incorrect person. "We were able to find matches between samples in databases of non-overlapping genetic markers more than 90% of the time when they were samples from the same individual and around 30% of the time when they were samples from close relatives".

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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. One DNA sequencing company has already positioned itself as a liaison between the forensic sector and the consumer sector, uploading 100 "cold cases" to consumer genetic databases.

Since then, at least 13 additional suspected criminals have been identified in the same way.

In fact, GEDmatch, which is intended exclusively for genealogical research, was instrumental in tracking the elusive Golden State Killer suspect. "Clearly a trend has started".

"Genetic genealogy databases act like a GPS system for anonymous DNA", Erlich said in a statement. That's limited enough that police could zero in with further investigation, Erlich said. "The problem is that the very same strategy can be misused". "Nonetheless, one case involved a crime from April 2018, suggesting that some law enforcement agencies have incorporated long-range familial DNA searches into active investigations", they explain. Or protesters and activists being pursued in this way.

They suggest that direct-to-consumer DNA testing companies put a special code on the raw data files they send to their customers.

Many more people than that have paid to have their DNA sequenced. This would ensure that people could conduct searches related only to their own DNA.

Erlich uses the example of law enforcement tracking down a protester who unwittingly left DNA at a political demonstration. Now, however, a new study has found that with an anonymous person's genetic code and some basic information about them (such as where they live and their approximate age), you can use the DNA of their relations to track down their identity.

Just this year, his adopted cousin found a biological sister who lives halfway around the world, he said.

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