guidelines on forensic genetic genealogy released by DOJCredit: iStock

On Sept. 24, the Department of Justice announced its Interim Policy on forensic genetic genealogy (FGG), an emerging investigative technique that will combine technological advancements in DNA analysis and searching with traditional geneology research. FGG is a unique investigative method that can generate leads used by law enforcement to not only identify unknown suspects but to help identify the remains of homicide victims.

“Prosecuting violent crimes is a department priority for many reasons, including to ensure public safety and to bring justice and closure to victims and victims’ families,” said Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen. “We cannot fulfill our mission if we cannot identify the perpetrators. Forensic genetic genealogy gets us that much closer to being able to solve the formerly unsolvable. But we must not prioritize this investigative advancement above our commitments to privacy and civil liberties; and that is why we have released our Interim Policy—to provide guidance on maintaining that crucial balance.”

The Department’s policy, which will go into effect on Nov. 1, 2019, is designed to balance the Department’s relentless commitment to solving violent crimes and protecting public safety against equally important public interests—such as preserving the privacy and civil liberties of all citizens. In order to do so, the Department’s Interim Policy on Forensic Genetic Genealogical DNA Analysis and Searching (found at www.justice.gov/forensics) provides the first comprehensive guidance to law enforcement on the use of FGG.

Related Infographic: Forensic Biology: DNA-Based Techniques

The Interim Policy contains nine sections that lay out critical requirements for the use of FGG by law enforcement, including the collaborative interdisciplinary use of the technique, the criteria a case must meet in order to use FGG, and how the practice is used to generate leads for unsolved crimes.

As genetic genealogy websites become more popular and individuals continue to voluntarily submit their DNA or enter their genetic profiles onto publically available genetic genealogy sites, the more biological information there is to compare with DNA samples from crime scenes.

In essence, a DNA sample taken from the scene of a violent crime that does not match any samples available in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) will not generate a lead for law enforcement. FGG provides an alternative option. However, FGG requires a type of DNA testing that department laboratories currently do not perform, so the sample must be outsourced to a vender laboratory. After the vender laboratory completes a more comprehensive analysis on the sample, the resulting genetic profile is entered into one or more publicly-available genetic genealogy services and compared by automation against the genetic profiles of individuals who have voluntarily submitted their own samples. The computer’s algorithm then evaluates potential familial relationships between the sample donor and the website’s users. If an association is detected, it generates a lead. Subsequently, law enforcement can use that lead to advance their investigation using traditional investigative and genealogical methods.  

The personal genetic information is not transferred, retrieved, downloaded, or retained by the genetic genealogy users—including law enforcement. And before FGG is an option, all other available techniques, including a search of CODIS, must be exhausted.

A final department policy on forensic genetic genealogy will be issued in 2020.