For years, he was known only as Septic Tank Sam – a macabre nickname that the RCMP coined on a disfigured body pulled from a septic tank in rural Alberta in the late 1970s.
But this summer saw a breakthrough: Septic Tank Sam got its name back.
Through a Texas-based DNA lab using genetic genealogy, the RCMP in Alberta was able to identify the deceased as Gordie Sanderson, who had been reported missing decades earlier.
Using DNA extracted from his bones, Othram Inc. was able to build a genetic profile by uploading its information to public genetic databases.
While Sanderson’s killings remain an open file, it now has a name, a story and a new sense of urgency.
“He deserved to have his name restored,” said Othram CEO David Mittelman.
“Techniques like this allow us to basically help reunite families and let them heal, whether it’s to return a loved one who was missing or to seek justice for a loved one who was injured.”
While law enforcement authorities’ use of genetic genealogy research has been credited with promoting and resolving cold cases, it also raises ethical questions about how police are exploiting the trend toward DNA testing in the home.
“There have been some pretty big gains with this technology, but the downsides are also pretty big,” said Brenda McPhail, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s program for privacy, surveillance and technology.
“Our genetic information is literally the most personal, intimate information that is about us, which means it deserves the highest level of protection we can provide it.”
Investigative genetic genealogy – famous for its role in capturing the Golden State Killer – involves searching private genealogy databases for matches to identify a family relationship or a probable suspect.
It piggybacks of the rise of private sector genealogical companies, used by people to explore their family heritage or determine their chances of inheriting diseases.
The RCMP assesses the ‘viability and legality’ of technology
The RCMP says it’s reviewing the legitimacy of using genetic genealogy in research – though it’s continuing to use the technique in the meantime.
In addition to using the services of Othram Inc., the RCMP also signed a $ 98,000 contract with US-based Parabon NanoLabs in early 2018 – something first reported by Globe and Mail.
RCMP spokesman Sgt. Caroline Duval said the force is working with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, Department of Justice, RCMP National Forensic Laboratory Services and National DNA Databank Advisory Committee to “assess the viability and legality of using this technique in criminal investigations.”
“The guidance provided, along with an assessment of privacy, will assist the RCMP in developing the appropriate policies and procedures going forward,” she told CBC News in an email.
“Once formalized, the RCMP policy will determine certain approval criteria and responsibilities of the police to ensure organizational accountability.”
Some observers are calling for legal guardianship to control how law enforcement officers use DNA databases.
“If we do not wake up, we are falling asleep towards a society where the police have extraordinary capabilities to use invasive surveillance without having had the necessary public conversations about when it is appropriate,” McPhail said.
“When they upload their personal DNA swab to this database to find out their heritage … what they do is expose themselves, their relatives and everything up to their unborn children or their children’s unborn children to potential police surveillance. “
Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Patricia Kosseim said non-consenting family members could be subjected to unauthorized police surveillance.
“When you get into a partial fight, there are a lot of law-abiding relatives who can come under intensive investigation by investigators who are trying to narrow down their suspects,” she said.
“So the police can use these clues to monitor their homes, they can track their coming and going, they can interrogate their neighbors.”
It could also lead to some unwanted revelations, Kosseim said.
“Some people involved may not know they are adopted, they may not know they have siblings,” she said. “And these are really difficult situations, and the police need guidance on how to deal with those situations.”
The RCMP will not say how many times it has used the technique beyond the few cases known to the public.
“Local investigation units can use commercial laboratory and database services to support the genetic genealogy process, provided they adhere to the associated terms of service and privacy policies of the laboratories currently in place,” Duval said.
In a briefing note prepared for Federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien ahead of a meeting with RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki earlier this year, Therrien’s office said RCMP investigators should only use the technique in serious cases.
“At present, given the lack of internal policy, the RCMP does not know the extent to which the technology is being used,” the briefing note, obtained through a request for access to information, said.
Finding a balance
Last week, Therrien’s office said it is working with the RCMP as it prepares a privacy assessment for genetic genealogy. The assessment is intended to identify potential privacy risks and suggest ways to deal with them.
Office spokesman Vito Pilieci said it would support the oversight and monitoring of the collection, use, storage and destruction of DNA profiles.
Kosseim, a member of the National DNA Databank Advisory Committee, said the law as it stands has not kept pace with technological developments.
“We are talking about a completely different area of databases that has really grown in a kind of parallel universe to the state-sanctioned national database,” she said.
“I think there should be a real rethinking of the current rules and how they should be adapted and changed to get a handle on these new sources of genealogical information.”
Her counterpart in British Columbia, Michael McEvoy, said it’s about finding a balance.
“As a society, what we seek is to have law enforcement that keeps us safe and secure while at the same time we want to ensure that our freedoms and freedoms are preserved. We can do both,” he said.
“I expect rules that are in place around this will distinguish between very serious crimes – murder, rape, for example, very violent crimes – versus shoplifting.”
Daryl Pullman, professor of bioethics and director of the Center for Bioethics at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador, said it is not surprising that police want to use what is being “fingerprinted by the new generation of forensic research. “
But he questioned whether the police themselves should be the ones drafting a policy.
“Perhaps we should not leave it to their hands to decide whether they want a policy on how to handle the information of private citizens,” he said.
“Maybe we need to have governments that actually wade into this and in a way say, ‘These are the parameters we’re going to put around these things, this is the bar you need to reach. ‘. “
McEvoy said privacy advocates around the world have called for certification programs to evaluate the work of companies that collect and store genetic data.
“By the way, this is not a case where the police just press a button to get DNA, press a button and there comes an answer,” he said. “This involves a combination of the DNA and very talented people who understand the world of genealogy.”
It is not clear how the relatively new criminal investigation technique would stand up in court. Duval said a Canadian case involving genealogical DNA going through the justice system could affect how the RCMP uses this technique in the future.
Read it in small print
Private companies have different terms of service for law enforcement. In response to public feedback, GEDmatch changed its Terms of Service and removed user profiles from law enforcement searches (it restores the profiles of users who sign up).
FamilyTreeDNA says police can access its profiles to identify the remains of a deceased person or to identify a perpetrator of murder, sexual assault or abduction – but only with the permission of the clients who own the profiles.
“I do not think it’s good enough that companies introduced rules … They vary,” McEvoy said.
“It’s based on a system in some cases where you, as the person submitting your data, either give consent or do not consent to it being handed over to the police. In many cases, of course, it is in small print. Many people understand not quite what they give up. “
Othrams Mittelman said his company’s sole purpose is to work on law enforcement, and he believes people should allow police to use their genetic data to solve crimes.
“No one wants to wake up and find out that their data is being used in a way that they did not expect,” he said.
“I would rather get public support because we have hundreds of thousands of cases left … It would be a tragedy to cut them off, or to delay or somehow hinder our ability to do good just because we did not follow a process.”