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Familial DNA searches come with risks, rewards in solving MMIWG cold cases

A visitor views a digital representation of the human genome at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in a file photo. Each color represents one the four chemical components of DNA. (Mario Tama/Getty Images - image credit)
A visitor views a digital representation of the human genome at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in a file photo. Each color represents one the four chemical components of DNA. (Mario Tama/Getty Images - image credit)

Some advocates say a tool touted by Manitoba RCMP for helping identify a suspect in the cold case of an Indigenous woman's murder should be expanded to help solve more cases like it.

Others fear it could do more harm than good.

Last week, police arrested Kevin Charles Queau, 42, accused of killing 24-year-old Crystal Saunders in 2007, thanks to advancements in DNA technology in 2014 that helped the Canadian DNA databank link him to a DNA sample found on the woman's body.

Arthur Schafer, an ethics professor at the University of Manitoba, says Queau's arrest shows the national DNA databank can be "really useful in a number of cases," but warns "without rules or regulations, there could also be serious harm."

The RCMP stewards the databank, established in 2000, which holds just over 650,000 DNA samples from crime scenes, as well as profiles of people convicted of certain designated offences, victims of crime, unidentified human remains, volunteers and missing persons and their family members from across Canada.

The national databank has been under scrutiny in recent years, as a Conservative senator's proposed bill sought to allow police to search it for familial matches of a DNA sample for perpetrators of some serious crimes when an exact one cannot be found — an idea that senators quashed in December.

But questions remain about whether police use of the databank should be allowed to go further than it has, with some asking whether more police power could solve more cold cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Since Indigenous peopleare more likely to end up in the justice system, and therefore the DNA databank, Schafer says "that leaves us with the quandary: Will the benefits of familial DNA searches to Indigenous communities — and particularly Indigenous women and girls — outweigh the harms?"

'Unacceptable discrimination'

Before familial DNA searches were voted down in December, Renée Dupuis, an independent senator now retired, described the practice as "unacceptable discrimination," as it could result in heavier surveillance of Indigenous and other racialized communities.

However, the president of the Native Women's Association of Canada told the Senate in November that she would be in favour of granting police that power, saying it could identify more killers of Indigenous women and girls as well as exonerate the wrongfully convicted.

"We think that there's more benefits [than harm], especially with what's going on with our missing and murdered Indigenous women," Carol McBride told CBC News.

"I don't think that the pain will ever end, but at least the questions will be gone."

The conversation poses a question long asked by legislators and privacy experts alike: Could the use of the Canadian DNA databank be more powerful, or is it already too harmful?

Since 2000, Canada's DNA databank "has provided 80,875 investigative leads through matches to offenders, as well as 9,007 matches between crime scenes between police jurisdictions for all designated offences," RCMP spokesperson Robin Percival told CBC News on Friday.

"Of the 80,875 offender hits, 5,265 were obtained in murder investigations."

Det. Stephen Smith with Toronto police spoke in favour of familial searches to the Senate last November on behalf of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, saying "the more DNA profiles we have on file, the more chances of a match."

He also confirmed that police forces across Canada currently use investigative genetic genealogy — famous for its role in catching the Golden State Killer — which involves scouring the data bases of private genealogical companies to identify a familial relationship or a likely suspect.

The technique piggybacks on the rise of private sector genealogical companies, used by people to explore their family heritage or determine their odds of contracting hereditary diseases.

Apart from employing the services of Othram Inc. — a Texas-based DNA lab — the RCMP also signed a $98,000 contract with the U.S.-based Parabon NanoLabs in early 2018 without first conducting a privacy impact assessment — something first reported by The Globe and Mail.

In November, the RCMP told CBC News it's reviewing the legitimacy of using genetic genealogy in investigations, even as it continues to use the technique in the meantime, but wouldn't say how many times it's done so beyond the few cases known to the public.

In Saunders's case, detectives had to rely on some "very complex investigative techniques" to gather evidence beyond Queau's alleged DNA sample, Manitoba RCMP Supt. Rob Lasson said, but he did not elaborate on the techniques.

'Your DNA reveals a lot'

Schafer says public discussion is needed about what can allow police to use the national DNA databank, and when they're allowed to ask private, genealogical databanks to turn over their data.

While there's just over half a million DNA samples collected in the Canadian DNA databank, there are millions more contained within the databanks of private, genealogical companies, he said.

"Your DNA reveals a lot of intimate information about you, your health [and] your family," Schafer said.

The benefits of  DNA investigative techniques don't just give closure to families, Schafer says, it also gives protection to society and deters people from committing serious crimes.

In order to maximize those benefits and minimize the harms of DNA access, he says: "We need oversight. We need monitoring. We need accountability."

The DNA databank does have an advisory committee.

Ann Cavoukian, Ontario's former information and privacy commissioner, says she opposes the RCMP's caretaking role of the databank altogether.

"It makes me very nervous, because certainly in the past there have been times where the RCMP has exceeded their authority, so we'd have to watch very closely and have some oversight over this," she told CBC News.

"What I object to is that this information will be widely available to any law enforcement person whether their case is warranted or not, because they could gain access anytime, any place."

Former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian called on Canada’s privacy commissioner to investigate Marketplace’s findings.
Former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian called on Canada’s privacy commissioner to investigate Marketplace’s findings.

Ann Cavoukian, Ontario's former information and privacy commissioner, says police should be required to seek a warrant from judges in order to access the DNA profiles of Canadians. (Dave MacIntosh/CBC)

She says police should be required to seek a warrant from judges in order to access the DNA profiles of Canadians.

"DNA is extremely, extremely privacy-invasive — obviously because it will identify you almost perfectly as an individual. [It] needs to be guarded and protected very carefully," Cavoukian said.

"Privacy literally forms the foundation of our freedom. If you want to live in free and democratic states like wonderful Canada, you have to have the ability to protect your data and preserve your privacy, and I don't want people to forget that."