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The Questionable Ethics of Expanding Forensic DNA Testing

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A saliva collection kit for DNA testing.

After more than a decade of work, the Human Genome Project produced the first complete sequence of the human genome in 2001. Although hard to imagine at that moment, two decades of profound technological improvements mean that it now takes just days to generate genomic data. Easy sequencing has pushed genomic data out of the lab and into people’s lives in fascinating ways. Take the proliferation of services like 23andMe that analyze your genetic information, and tell you about your ancestry, and perhaps help you discover unknown relatives who have also uploaded data.

While the ability to generate massive amounts of genomic data presents amazing, novel opportunities, like discovering the underlying genetic cause of a rare disease, it has also led to unexpected and ethically fraught uses. One such case is the forensic use of genealogy data. Criminal investigators have long used DNA evidence as part of their arsenal of tools, analyzing samples collected at a crime scene to see whether there is a match with someone in an established forensic database. But DNA found at a crime scene is only helpful if that potential suspect is already in the right database. Forensic DNA data is currently gathered into an uneven patchwork of state- and federal-level databases. (Some have proposed the potentially effective but controversial idea to build a universal database.)

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