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“Ancestry and 23andMe said they zealously guard the privacy of their testing results, but the data can become accessible when uploaded to other databases. “Your chance of finding someone that is a third cousin is about 60 percent in U.S. individuals with European ancestry,” says Yaniv Erlich, the first author of the paper and the chief science officer of MyHeritage. He suggested it might be wise to encrypt genetic data to protect personal information, although that could complicate the type of searches police and researchers wish to make.
The technique relies on links between distant relatives. “Think of your family like layers of an onion,” he says. Your closest relatives are parents, children and siblings. The next layer is first cousins, which you might have in higher numbers. Another layer and you reach second cousins, and so on until you could find yourself related to many third cousins you don’t know at all. “When you go to very distant relatives, chances of a link are much higher,” he says. These kinds of links were used earlier this year to identify a suspect in the case of the alleged Golden State Killer, who was connected to the crimes partially via the DNA of relatives in a genetic database.
Once police had genetic links to distant relatives, they could draw a large, complex family tree, possibly too large to analyze. But then they could exclude many of the linked individuals based on other data—where they live, their age, their sex and so forth, Erlich notes. Much of that information comes from widely shared family trees drawn by consumers. After pruning the data that way, a pool of, say, 850 relatives could be reduced to 15 who might plausibly be connected to the crimes in question.
Then police can start knocking on doors and doing the kind of investigation they do routinely. “It’s really only over the last year that the ability to use these public genealogical databases for identifying individuals became clear,” says Daniel MacArthur, group leader of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Analytic and Translational Genetics Unit. “The academic community didn’t appreciate how large these databases are and how readily they could be used to triangulate genetic identity.””
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