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Mar 29, 2022

Police Use of Forensic Genealogy Tech Raises Privacy Concerns

The bound and gagged body of Marise Ann Chiverella was still warm to the touch when police arrived at the refuse-strewn stripping hole in Hazle Township on the afternoon of March 18, 1964.

Yet decades would pass before the DNA technology needed to unmask the brutal murderer was finally invented. Last month, Pennsylvania State Police identified him as James Paul Forte, a bartender who died suddenly at work at the age of 38 on May 16, 1980.

The reveal was too late to bring Forte to justice, but it made headlines across the country and created a local wave of excitement about clearing cold cases. Within days, troopers began a crowdfunding effort to work another cold case, the Luzerne Foundation launched a cold-case fund and some lawmakers began calling for additional state funding to help clear unsolved murders.

“It’s a great time to be an investigator right now — as long as they have the resources to use it,” Luzerne County District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce said. “I could very easily see law enforcement agencies — at least the bigger ones — in the near future employing genealogists … (to) narrow down the universe of population from everybody on earth or in the country or in the state to, now, maybe only 200 people.”

But while law enforcement has seized on the technique, the practice remains controversial and has raised privacy concerns along with calls for increased regulation.

Police investigating crimes like murder or rape generally enter genetic profiles obtained from crime scenes to the FBI-maintained Combined DNA Index System — which contains more than 19 million profiles of convicted criminals and arrestees as well as forensic profiles — in an effort to identify offenders.

But if the trail goes cold via that route, forensic genealogy can give investigators another avenue to pursue.

By entering a genetic profile to commercial websites like GEDmatch or FamilyTreeDNA, investigators can seek out imperfect matches and identify an offender’s relatives who have voluntarily submitted their genetic material for genealogical purposes.

The police can then zero in on the offender by studying the family tree and requesting exclusionary DNA samples from willing members.

Troopers used the same procedure and the same service — GEDmatch — to identify Forte as Chiverella’s killer earlier this year.

The controversy comes into play because there are few laws regulating privacy on the commercial databases and many of the genetic testing sites have varying policies about data sharing.

“There are very legitimate privacy concerns here,” Kreider said. “I think the vast majority of people who submit their data to these consumer databases are not thinking about it. They’re not reading the fine print. They’re just looking for some private information about their family.”

You can read more in an article by James Halpin published in the Government Technology web site at: https://bit.ly/37ZzLX6.