The RCMP is flouting federal directives by exploring a new investigative technique without spelling out its effect on the privacy of Canadians, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada says.
Government records show that the RCMP signed a $98,000 contract in March, 2018, with a U.S.-based “genetic-genealogy” company that mines the DNA profiles of people in hopes of identifying suspects. The company, Parabon NanoLabs, seeks to match police crime-scene DNA with analyses drawn from “direct-to-consumer” genetic-testing companies.
While there are no laws governing police access to tools such as these, the RCMP has a duty to disclose its investigative techniques when it comes to technologies that can undermine collective privacy. Federal rules require agencies such as the RCMP to write what are known as privacy impact assessments that lay out the pros and cons of any potentially invasive new programs.
“At this time, we have not received any Privacy Impact Assessments (PIAs) from the RCMP about genetic genealogy or about its contract with Parabon NanoLabs,” said Vito Pilieci, spokesman for the federal Privacy Commissioner of Canada. “Since these investigative techniques involve sensitive biometrics and therefore raise significant privacy issues, we believe we should have received a PIA by now.”
Several Canadian police forces are now using these kinds of forensic services, which have far-reaching privacy implications as they can detect crime suspects who have not consented to surrendering their DNA data to authorities.
These techniques rely on roundabout searches of genetic information – usually by matching DNA recovered from crime scenes with pre-existing portraits of entire families whose members have given up their genetic information to be analyzed on consumer sites.
The RCMP, which did not confirm or deny its use of genetic-genealogy techniques, acknowledged the need to discuss the issue with the federal watchdog.
The force “has not yet completed a privacy impact assessment for this investigative technique but has recently begun consulting with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada to move closer to formalizing the use of genetic genealogy as an investigative technique,” the RCMP said in a statement.
Details about the nearly two-year-old RCMP contract with Parabon NanoLabs are posted on a government site listing business deals in excess of $10,000. The summary says only that the Mounties required a year’s worth of “DNA test” work starting in March, 2018.
On its website, Parabon NanoLabs advertises three types of forensic services for police who want quick answers “without wasting time and money chasing false leads.”
The first is genetic genealogy, which the company says can ”identify a suspect by searching for relatives in public databases and building family trees.” The second is DNA phenotyping (which helps ”predict physical appearance”)” and the third is kinship inference (which determines “kinship between DNA samples”).
The company and the RCMP would not discuss details of the 2018 contract. “You should contact the RCMP with any questions,” said Parabon NanoLabs spokeswoman Julie Madden. RCMP Staff Sergeant Janelle Shoihet said, “We are not in a position to provide any more information with respect to what the Parabon NanoLabs contract may have been utilized for.”
Parabon NanoLabs says on its website that it has worked with at least six Canadian municipal police forces on murder cases, including two that have resulted in charges coming to trial in Sudbury and Calgary. These police forces are not talking about their cases, however, citing the pretrial publication bans invoked to protect the fair-trial rights of an accused in Canada.
In October, the Toronto Police Service said that it worked with another company that used genetic-genealogy techniques to solve the 1984 murder of nine-year-old Christine Jessop. That homicide led to the wrongful conviction of Guy-Paul Morin after a botched police probe.
Police revealed that the actual killer died in 2015. Since the Toronto Police announcement, Windsor Police and the Ontario Provincial Police have also come forward to say they have used similar tools to crack other historic homicides.
Privacy watchdogs say policy makers and the public need to be involved in the discussions on the trade-offs inherent in these investigations.
“While DNA profiles can help solve cold cases and bring emotional closure to victims and families, their collection and retention must respect the highest possible standards of fair balance between security and privacy,” said Mr. Pilieci, the federal Privacy Commissioner spokesman.
In 2017, the commissioner’s office circulated a tip sheet that cautioned Canadians against buying consumer DNA test kits, a practice that usually starts out with someone mailing a saliva swab to a U.S.-based company and then paying to have it analyzed.
The tip sheet pointed out that the data held by such entities is beyond the scope of Canada’s privacy laws. It also urged Canadians to ask questions such as “have I spoken to my family members about the potential implications this may have for them?”
Other privacy watchdogs are also wary of police access to consumer DNA profiles.
“Our office has expressed concerns about the privacy implications of police using genealogical DNA databases to conduct partial family searches,” Ontario’s privacy commissioner, Patricia Kosseim, said in a statement.
“Family members, who do not provide consent, may be unwittingly identified as possible crime suspects … . While that individual may (or may not) have provided their informed consent to share their genealogical DNA sample for law enforcement purposes, their relatives have not.”
The federal Privacy Commissioner’s office also points out that techniques available to police today are outside the scope of the rules laid down in Canada’s 1998 DNA Identification Act.
That act set strict ground rules for police access to DNA by creating the RCMP National DNA Data Bank, a repository of DNA profiles obtained from crime scenes and convicted offenders in Canada, which police can only search under judicial authorization for direct matches.
This system “does not currently allow for familial searching,” Mr. Pilieci said.
The emerging techniques are more expansive. “Direct-to-consumer” companies such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe sell their genetic-decoding services to consumers, but they are usually opposed to handing over records to police.
But there are other companies that compile databases of hundreds of thousands of these profiles. They do this by encouraging people to hand over the profiles they bought about themselves and to consent to having them aggregated and then searched by police.
For example, U.S.-based Verogen Inc. runs the GEDMatch database, which has assembled more than a million police-searchable DNA profiles.
A third group of companies – such as Parabon NanoLabs – sell their services in helping police navigate th data. In this way, crime-scene DNA can be matched with genealogical leads surfacing in the databases and then coupled with expansive public-record searches.
In exceptional cases, this points right to identifiable suspects. When that happens, police may follow suspects and seek what they shed – coffee cups, cigarettes, hair strands – and see if it’s a direct crime-scene match.
“Canada sat up and noticed right away. They were very interested very early on in this idea,” said CeCe Moore, the chief genetic genealogist at Parabon NanoLabs.
The Globe and Mail, December 6, 2020