By Kevin Deutsch and Sasha Gonzales
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It’s a “state” secret.
The work of a Virginia-based DNA testing company could wind up putting New Yorkers behind bars, but its plans for genetic testing in the Empire State are being kept from the public—and even the state’s own forensic science commission.
Parabon, which markets forensic genealogical testing and consultant work to law enforcement, is the first private company to seek licensing for investigative genetic genealogy testing in New York, state officials said. The company boasts it can identity up to nine degrees of relatives based on a genetic sample, and uses commercial databases containing the DNA of thousands of Americans to assist law enforcement in solving cold cases.
But the types of tests Parabon has applied to conduct in the state, specifics about how Parabon plans to use New Yorkers’ DNA, and other details contained in Parabon’s application for a New York State Forensic Identity permit remain shielded from public view.
“I do have a problem divulging specific information about the tests they’ve requested approval for,” Dr. Anne Walsh, Associate Director for Medical Affairs at the state Department of Health and head of DOH’s forensic identity section, said at a state forensic science commission meeting last month when asked by a commission member what tests the company plans to perform on New Yorkers’ DNA.
Parabon has previously declined to comment on what kind of work it might perform in New York, citing the ongoing DOH review process.
Terri Rosenblatt, Supervising Attorney of the Legal Aid Society’s DNA Unit, bashed the lack of transparency regarding Parabon’s work.
“Parabon, an out-of-state private company, is still pushing to perform genetic testing on New Yorkers,” she said. “Parabon’s services include searching people’s DNA for physical traits and family relationships using scientifically questionable techniques. To protect people’s rights, the State must demand from Parabon complete transparency, accountability and proof of reliability.”
If its application is approved, Parabon would face significantly less government scrutiny than public DNA crime labs like those run by medical examiner’s offices and law enforcement agencies. The reason: DOH has jurisdiction over the permitting process for private labs like Parabon, while the state’s forensic science commission has jurisdiction only over public crime labs.
New York has a rigorous oversight regime for genealogical DNA testing—a process its forensic science commission and DNA subcommittee spent more than a year designing and refining. But those oversight standards would not apply to private DNA testing companies and labs, which have much greater leeway under existing state law.
New York’s Division of Criminal Justice Services has received just a few dozen applications for genealogical DNA testing on samples gathered in criminal investigations. Parabon, on the other hand, would not be required to submit any applications to the state before analyzing DNA evidence provided by law enforcement.
Jonah Bruno, Director of Communications for DOH, said the agency is “reviewing Parabon’s application for a New York State Forensic Identity permit.”
Bruno provided a link to a web page outlining the state’s lab permitting process, but neither he nor Walsh responded to questions about Parabon’s application, who at DOH will make the final call on approval, and whether the public will have an opportunity to weigh in on the decision.
Among the more controversial work done by Parabon is phenotype analysis, which can determine a person’s likely hair color, eye color, skin tone, face shape, and other characteristics—all from a DNA sample.
Currently, New York state allows law enforcement agencies to perform familial searches using the state’s DNA Databank, which contains more than 682,000 profiles from people convicted of felonies and misdemeanors.
Parabon, on the other hand, uses public genealogical databases containing information about hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Authorities across the country have made dozens of cold-case arrests with the help of genetic genealogy, including the capture of the accused Golden State Killer. But the method has also sparked concern over the way public law enforcement agencies are using private DNA databases to catch offenders.
Here’s how Parabon’s work with New York law enforcement would likely be performed, according to Walsh:
An agency like the NYPD would consult with Parabon to determine whether it has enough DNA available for profiling.
If it does, the sample would be sent to a private lab approved by the state, where scientists would create a DNA profile with an accompanying trove of data.
Parabon would then test that profile against public genealogical databases like GEDMatch, and use the genetic data to perform phenotyping: the prediction of physical appearance and ancestry of an unknown person from their DNA, as well as kinship inference analysis: the determination of kinship between DNA samples out to nine degrees of relatedness (fourth cousins).
In a recent press release, Parabon said research for many of its solved cases was “extraordinarily difficult, involving distant relationship matches, adoption, misattributed parentage, and/or pedigree collapse, any of which can stall a genetic genealogy investigation.”
Critics Fear DNA Dragnet
While victim advocates have lauded Parabon’s technology as transformative, privacy and criminal defense experts fear a kind of national DNA dragnet could result from the company teaming up with New York law enforcement.
William Fitzpatrick, Onondaga County District Attorney and member of the state forensic science commission, said prosecutors in California have expressed concerns about the testing methods employed by Parabon, adding that he planned to share details about those concerns at the next commission meeting.