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Is the FBI Interested in Using Your Family’s DNA Against You?

Imagine a scenario in which the United States government is interested in tracking you down and has obtained a DNA sample through some means: a used coffee cup, perhaps, or a clump of hair. Imagine that the U.S. government doesn’t have a record of your DNA to match it against, but has DNA samples of some of your relatives. Your sister Betty has been swabbed multiple times after each of her DUI arrests, your uncle Fred got in that bar fight ten years ago, and your mom was caught up in that police cordon for unlawful assembly at the RNC protests in New York City back in 2004. Could the federal government use your relatives’ DNA samples to track you?

The answer for some time the near future appears to be both “yes” and “no.”

The FBI currently maintains a database called CODIS containing more than 7 million DNA samples, not just for people who have been convicted of a crime but also of people who’ve simply been arrested at some time. That database is currently growing at a rate of 1.7 million new samples per year, but even if the rate accelerates as expected it will be some years before most Americans are directly included in this database.

The FBI, however, has plans to push its capabilities beyond direct DNA analysis in the near future:

Through the combination of increased federal funding and expanded database laws, such as the DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005, the number of profiles in NDIS has and will continue to dramatically increase resulting in a need to re-architect the CODIS software. A considerable focus during this time will be to enhance kinship analysis software for use in the identification of missing persons. This next generation of CODIS will utilize STR and mtDNA information as well as meta data (such as sex, date of last sighting, age, etc.) to help in the identification of missing persons. The re-architecture will also enable CODIS to include additional DNA technologies such a Y Short Tandem Repeat (Y-STR) and mini-Short Tandem Repeat (miniSTR). The FBI Laboratory is committed to the support of the CODIS program. With the continued cooperation and collaboration of legislative bodies and all components of the criminal justice community—law enforcement, crime laboratories, victims, prosecutors and the judiciary—the future of DNA, CODIS, and NDIS holds even greater promise to solve crime and identify missing persons.

Did you catch the reference to “kinship analysis”? That’s the use of relatives’ DNA to figure out if a sample of unknown identity comes from within a family. While the FBI begins its discussion of kinship analysis within the limited context of “the identification of missing persons,” by the end of its visionary paragraph it’s talking about the “even greater promise to solve crime.”

In a paper published last year by the Laboratory Division of the FBI, Quantico’s Bruce Budowle and his co-authors recognized movement within the Bureau toward this “kinship analysis” as a tool of investigation:

Because CODIS is designed to facilitate obtaining direct matches, partial matches constitute exclusions. However, some may seek to use moderate stringency search algorithms with hopes of finding investigative leads to identify the sources of evidentiary material through kinship or familial inferences. The premise is that close relatives, i.e., parent-offspring and sib-sib, would share more alleles in common than unrelated individuals. Therefore, when there is no high stringency match obtained via a CODIS search, a moderate stringency candidate match may associate an evidence profile to a relative of the true source of the evidence profile. Indeed, a moderate stringency match does meet the general criterion for a potential relative (often favoring a parent-offspring relationship) being the source, because there is one allele in common at all loci.

Budowle et al. refer elsewhere to “the attempts to apply current partial matches to familial searches” within the FBI. It’s reasonable to assume from these references that there is some interest on the part of the FBI in tracking people through the use of relatives’ DNA. In the sense of engaging in that practice, the answer to the question, “Could the federal government use your relatives’ DNA samples to track you?” is YES, the FBI could be doing this soon.

But Budowle and his co-authors don’t simply refer to the desire of the FBI to conduct kinship analysis. They also consider the advisability of that practice. The experience of frequent false positives from DNA paternity searches, a brief statistical consideration of the likelihood of false relative indications given the current information contained in the CODIS database, and the problem of mutation lead them to conclude that the accurate pinpointing of relatives using currently available DNA matching procedures isn’t possible. The answer to the question, “Could the federal government use your relatives’ DNA samples to accurately track you?” appears to be NO, at least currently.

But to further complicate our answers, that the FBI does not have the current ability to accurately track people using DNA database entries about their kin does not mean that the FBI will not try to do so anyway. The reliance upon DNA “fingerprints” in criminal cases during the 1980s and 1990s despite significant methodological and statistical errors should lead us to be somewhat dubious about plans for DNA profiling in the future. And the final conclusion of the FBI’s paper on the subject recommends the development of new statistical methods and the collection of new varieties of information to make kinship analysis more accurate, indicating a strong inclination to make kinship analysis work rather than abandon the prospect.

Is the FBI interested in using your family’s DNA to find you? Definitely. Will the FBI be using your family’s DNA against you? Maybe. Keep watch.

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