Advances in DNA technology are being credited with solving a growing pile of cold case murders in the United States, but some Canadian police forces are lagging behind their U.S. counterparts in adopting the new methods.
Experts say a research technique called genetic genealogy — which involves comparing DNA from a crime scene to the vast amount of public data that has been uploaded to private platforms such as Ancestry.com and 23andme — represents the best chance of solving decades-old murders.
Some Canadian police, however, are slower to embrace it, in part because of privacy concerns and because it has yet to be tested in the Canadian court system.
Diane Seguin, head of biology and DNA for Quebec’s forensics lab, said the province is beginning to apply genetic genealogy in a few “very high-profile cases” in partnership with police and prosecutors, who would be responsible for defending it in an eventual trial.
“We are just starting in Canada to use those technologies, because the legal side is not really clear,” Seguin said in an interview last week.
With genetic genealogy, even a match to the public profile of a distant relative can be used by genealogists to construct a family tree and identify the suspect, who can then be investigated by traditional policing methods.
The technique has been used a few times in Canada — most notably to solve the 1984 killing of nine-year-old Christine Jessop in Ontario. That case was solved with the help of Texas-based forensics lab Othram, which has also helped to identify decades-old remains in Regina and Edmonton.
However, genetic genealogy has not yet been conclusively tested in a Canadian court because most of the people identified were dead.
The RCMP say they are working to develop a national policy on the use of genetic genealogy that respects Canadian laws, including those protecting privacy. Sgt. Caroline Duval wrote in an email that the RCMP are working with partners, including the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, legal services and the RCMP forensic lab to assess the viability of using the technique.
“Should a Canadian case go through the court system with a genealogical DNA component, the decisions rendered may also have an effect on how police use this investigative technique moving forward, and the development of national and divisional policies,” Duval wrote.
In the meantime, local RCMP detachments may use commercial laboratory and database services “provided that they comply with the associated terms of service and privacy policies of the labs currently in place,” Duval added.
Brenda McPhail, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s director of privacy, technology and surveillance, says there are numerous privacy concerns surrounding police use of DNA, which she describes as “our most intimate and sensitive information.”
People who upload their DNA to public sites often want to learn more about their family history and may not realize how the information could be used by law enforcement, she said in an interview Thursday.
Even if they check a box allowing the information to be made public, “can they give meaningful consent in a situation where they’re not just consenting to have their information used but having their information used in ways that implicate other people in their family?” she asked.
McPhail said she is aware of one case involving genetic genealogy before the Ontario courts, which has yet to conclude but could set precedent. More widely, she said, there needs be a conversation about how advanced DNA and other powerful surveillance technologies can be used by police forces and about how to balance privacy and the desire to solve crimes.
Seguin, meanwhile, said the technique may not immediately yield as many results in Canada as in the U.S. because Canadians don’t upload their DNA to public websites as often as Americans do, meaning investigators have a smaller pool of samples to draw from.
Nevertheless, she said the Quebec lab is forging ahead in using new technologies to solve cold cases. Seguin said the lab, which handles all the forensics work from police forces across the province, works on about 50 cold cases per year.
Sometimes lab technicians retest decades-old pieces of evidence with better technology to try to extract DNA — although doing so is complicated by the fact that samples could be contaminated by sloppy police work, she said.
Seguin said the lab has also acquired an instrument for phenotyping — which helps identify probable physical characteristics such as hair, skin and eye colour from a DNA sample. The lab has a genealogist on staff to reconstruct family trees, she said, adding that it is also creating its own database that matches DNA with certain surnames.
While the process may appear slow, she said that just because a cold case isn’t being solved immediately, it doesn’t mean it won’t be.
Any DNA belonging to a suspect is uploaded to a database and stays permanently on file waiting for a match — either from a newly arrested offender or a profile uploaded to a public site, Seguin said.
Police in the province continue to resolve old crimes through traditional DNA extraction — with the possibility of many more to come given the rapid technological advances taking place all the time, she added.
“We’re at a turning point, right now, in my point of view,” she said. “In DNA testing we are just opening a new era.”
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