Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy

ForenSeq Study


Project Description


After the Golden State Killer: Public Preferences and Policy Implications of Police Use of Genetic Data

In 2018, the arrest of the alleged Golden State Killer made headlines around the world. He was identified using a controversial new technique called investigative genetic genealogy (IGG). This technique involves uploading crime scene DNA to genetic genealogy databases with the intention of identifying a criminal offender’s genetic relatives and, eventually, locating the offender in their family tree. Since 2018, according to one expert, IGG has helped lead to the successful identification of over 150 violent criminal suspects.

At the same time, the technique has been challenged by those who argue it violates fundamental privacy interests of database participants and their families. Some believe that these privacy concerns are so compelling that IGG threatens to undermine public participation in clinical and research genetic databases, especially those maintained by the government.

Past studies—including our own—have demonstrated that individuals are concerned about genetic privacy, yet they are willing to share their genetic data with certain individuals, for particular reasons, and under specific conditions. But all of these studies pre-date IGG and none probed participation by law enforcement in genetic genealogy or other recreational genetic databases. Understanding the complex trade-offs that the public makes when assessing the value and acceptability of law enforcement use of genetic data will be important in ensuring that IGG-relevant policies and practices that are adopted strike a balance between safety and privacy that is acceptable to the public.

This project involves:

  • Qualitative interviews to characterize and forecast law enforcement participation in genetic genealogy databases.
  • Focus groups and a discrete choice experiment to measure preferences related to law enforcement participation in genetic genealogy databases.
  • A modified policy Delphi to develop best practices related to law enforcement participation in genetic genealogy databases.

Project Team


Co-Principal Investigators
Christi Guerrini, J.D., M.P.H., Principal Investigator
Amy L. McGuire, J.D., Ph.D., Principal Investigator

Stephanie Malia Fullerton, D.Phil., Co-Investigator
John F.P. Bridges, Ph.D., Co-Investigator

Project Personnel
Whitney Bash Brooks, M.P.H, Research Associate
Jill Oliver Robinson, M.A., Research Manager
Olivia Schuman Ph.D., Postdoc Fellow




Guerrini CJ, Fullerton SM, Haxel J, Mcguire AL. Detectives in DNA Databases?: Emerging Issues in Investigative Genetic Genealogy. Presented at the: American Society for Bioethics and Humanities Annual Conference; October 2020; Virtual.