Do the Public Support Police Using Consumer DNA Databases in their Investigations?
Alexandra R. Quinton, Research Associate, University of Canberra
Sally F. Kelty, Criminologist and Senior Lecturer in Applied Psychology, University of Canberra
Nathan Scudder, Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Canberra, Australian Federal Police
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This article summarizes recent research into what the public think about police having access to and using Investigative Genetic Genealogy in their cases. In this research we explore whether public opinions change based on attitudes towards the law, courts and police, retributive punishment alignment and different crime type scenarios.
Consumer/private DNA databases were established to help consumers trace their family trees or obtain predictions about health. Despite this original purpose consumer DNA databases have also been used as a valuable tool in police and forensic investigations. Most notably, the high-profile case of the Golden State Killer brought the use of consumer DNA databases within investigations into public awareness. As with the Golden State Killer case and National DNA Program for Missing Unidentified Persons, consumer DNA databases have helped police identify serial killers or long-term unidentified human remains.
Using consumer databases for criminal or coronial investigations has created ethical and legal debates around the degree of consumer consent provided. This has also highlighted a need to balance public safety and policing with civil liberties and privacy. Specifically, the use of consumer DNA databases by police in several high-profile cases (like the Golden State Killer) emphasized a lack of understanding from the general public in how any DNA samples they provided to private genealogy organisations could be used by police . It is therefore vital that before law enforcement agencies routinely are allowed access to consumer DNA in investigations, they need to better understand whether the public support this use of DNA, and if so whether there is more support in different types of police investigations.
In our recent research we carried out a general population study exploring public attitudes and support towards the police being allowed to use consumer DNA databases in five different crime type scenarios. These included homicide, sexual assault, unidentified human remains, robbery and illicit drug use. Though robbery and illicit drug use fall outside the current terms and conditions for GEDmatch and FTDNA law enforcement use, they were included in the scenarios to allow for comparisons between violent and non-violent crimes. Our international sample comprised of 438 adults, the majority of whom were female. Almost two thirds of the sample resided in Australia with other responses predominantly from Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Our study aimed to explore the relationship between positive attitudes towards police use of private DNA and whether these positive attitudes were influenced by people’s beliefs about retributive punishment. Retributive punishment and justice theory proposes that society has a responsibility to punish perpetrators of crimes to the severity of the crime they have committed . Under this theory there is a belief that this form of retribution is necessary to promote justice and lower recidivism rates .
We used a two-part survey that included demographic questions and three questionnaires focused on attitudes towards retributive punishment and attitudes to law, courts and police. We also designed a set of five crime vignettes describing hypothetical circumstances involving different crime types (homicide, sexual assault, unidentified human remains, illicit drug use and robbery). The vignettes were developed specifically to measure public attitudes towards the police using consumer DNA databases to further their investigations, noting that two of the case studies (illicit drug use and robbery) were not included – and aren’t expected to be permitted – under current terms and conditions for access to FTDNA and GEDmatch.
The results showed that there was higher public support for use of consumer DNA databases in violent crimes. These results showed that our participants were more supportive of police accessing consumer DNA databases in the three more serious crime types we measured, namely, sexual assault (83.5%), homicide (83.2%) and unidentified human remains (85.2%). These results were also in line with some previous research by Dundes  and Curtis  who found greater support for DNA retention for those convicted of serious crime types like sexual assault and homicide.
The results also explored whether people with more positive attitudes towards the law, courts and police (LCP), and higher retributive punishment attitudes (RPJ) could predict higher acceptability for police usage of consumer DNA databases in investigations. The results from a multiple linear regression supported that the more positive people’s attitudes were towards the law, courts and police services (LCP), the higher their support overall for police to use consumer DNA databases in investigations. This support uniquely explained nearly 7 per cent of the variance¹. Overall, these results suggested that the more positive attitudes were towards LCP and the stronger the moral alignment towards RPJ the more likely the public were to support police usage of consumer DNA databases in investigations.
Lastly, a correlational analysis was carried out to look at relationship between a participants’ age and gender, and whether these demographic variables influenced positive attitudes towards the law and justice system, retributive justice, and support for police having access to consumer DNA in any of the five crime types. We found that whilst age had some relationship, it was primarily attitudes towards LCP and retributive justice that showed the strongest relationship in whether people supported access to DNA databases. Specifically, retributive justice attitudes were a stronger predictor of support. In all correlations for support across the crime types, homicide showed the weakest relationship though it was still positively correlated and statistically significant.
Together this research suggests that multiple influences need to be considered when aiming to design user and consumer policy around police use of consumer DNA databases. Public support for police use of consumer DNA databases was influenced by people’s attitudes towards law, courts and police. This was then correlated with their attitudes towards retributive punishment. Combined these findings showed that they predicted the public’s overall levels of acceptability towards police use of consumer DNA databases in investigations.
For police to gain public support it is important to understand the nuances of public attitudes towards police access to consumer DNA databases. This research found that positive attitudes towards police, justice and law are aligned with higher retributive punishment views. This is most evident with the more serious crime types. It is possible that the more positive and supportive the public are towards crime resolution, the less concerned they may be towards aspects of privacy and consent issues. This also indicates that public attitudes are likely to change based on current socio-political influences and policy may need to be re-evaluated in-line with these changing attitudes.
For the forensic sciences, these findings indicate that although consumer DNA data provides a larger dataset for person of interest identification, the acceptability of using this data source appears to be directly linked to public attitudes. For the future of the forensic use, consumer DNA products are subject to factors that extend beyond that of the forensic sciences. To ensure access to this data continues, this research suggests that public consultation remains a key factor in not only building positive relationships between the police and communities, but also in defining under what circumstance consumer data can be used for forensic purposes.
Continued use of techniques such as Investigative Genetic Genealogy relies on maintaining public trust. This research sought to understand why and when people support this technique, and therefore strategies that can be implemented to ensure that approaches to its use don’t undermine that support.
This is a summary of a research project carried at the University of Canberra in 2020 and 2021. The full results can be seen in paper by Quinton, Kelty & Scudder (2022) 
¹specifically, the variance was t(282) = 4.65, p < .001, however when rounded, the difference was minimal with RPJ scores also uniquely explaining 6.76% of the variance, t(282) = 4.83, p < .001. Age was the next most significant predictor, explaining 4.24% of the variance, t(282) = 3.55, p = .001, and finally, gender explained 1.61% of the variance, t(282) = 2.18, p = .030.
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 Quinton, A. R., Kelty, S. F., & Scudder, N. (2022). Attitudes towards police use of consumer/private DNA databases in investigations. Science & Justice, 62(3), 263-271.
Alexandra R. Quinton
Alexandra is a research associate for the Discipline of Psychology, Faculty of Health at the University of Canberra, Australia. Her current research includes understanding public attitudes towards police use of consumer DNA products and understanding the relationship between COVID-19 responses and suicide in Australian prisons.