Maryland’s House just passed a first-in-the-nation bill to limit law enforcement’s use of DNA databases during investigations.
Bill HB240 requires that databases storing the genetic information of individuals notify and obtain consent from their consumers regarding law enforcement’s potential use of the technology and data.
The de facto genealogy database used by law enforcement is GEDmatch, a service that compares DNA data files from different testing companies. It gained significant media coverage in 2018 after it was used by law enforcement to locate a suspect who was later determined to be the Golden State Killer.
Genetic databases have been used by law enforcement forensics to match DNA with potential suspects’ identities. As of September 2020, GEDmatch has been credited for helping facilitate nearly 120 cold-case arrests.
However, the use of such technology raises ethical concerns about individuals’ rights to privacy, as genetic databases used by the public often offer more information than a traditional law enforcement DNA investigation, including information on physical characteristics, ethnicity, and diseases.
In addition to protecting user’s privacy, the bill establishes a limit on the types of crimes that are eligible for the use of this technology, restricting it to more serious crimes of murder, rape, kidnapping, human trafficking, and a felony sexual offense.
A sponsor of the bill, Delegate Emily Shetty, says the bill sets up “guardrails” on the use of forensic genetic genealogy by law enforcement, and strikes a balance between protecting individual privacy rights and regulating legitimate law enforcement use of the technology.
Senator Charles Snydor, who attempted to pass a bill 2 years ago that would prohibit use of the technology altogether, called it a “true compromise bill.”
According to Capital News Service, the bill was formed with help from a panel of professors, scientists, attorneys, and lawmakers. The result was legislation that prioritizes privacy as well as public safety.
Snydor said, “(This bill) is important because we want to make certain that there’s a balance between public safety and our constitutional right to privacy.”
Law enforcement was initially opposed to restrictions on the technology, but have accepted the new bill.
The Maryland Chiefs and Sheriffs Association support the new legislation because it enables them to use the technology while protecting privacy, according to Police Chief John Fitzgerald.
The bill now moves to the Senate and is likely to pass. If so, it would take effect on Oct. 1.