DNA-Testing Firm Will Share Data With FBI

The arrangement is the first time a commercial testing company has voluntarily given law enforcement access to user data. A privacy advocate calls the deal “deeply flawed.”

The decision by a prominent consumer DNA-testing company to share data with federal law enforcement means investigators have access to genetic information linked to hundreds of millions of people, reports Bloomberg. FamilyTreeDNA, an early pioneer of the rapidly growing market for consumer genetic testing, confirmed it has granted the FBI access to its vast trove of nearly 2 million genetic profiles. The arrangement was first reported by BuzzFeed News. Concerns about unfettered access to genetic information gathered by testing companies have increased since April, when police used a genealogy website to ensnare a suspect in the decades-old case of the Golden State Killer. That site, GEDmatch, was open-source, meaning police were able to upload crime-scene DNA data to the site without permission. The latest arrangement is the first time a commercial testing company has voluntarily given law enforcement access to user data.

The move is of concern to more than just privacy-minded FamilyTreeDNA customers. One person sharing genetic information exposes those to whom they are closely related. That’s how police caught the alleged Golden State Killer. FamilyTreeDNA’s cooperation with the FBI more than doubles the amount of genetic data that law enforcement had access to through GEDmatch. On a case-by-case basis, the company will test DNA samples for the FBI and upload profiles to its database, allowing law enforcement to see familial matches to crime-scene samples. “The deal between FamilyTreeDNA and the FBI is deeply flawed,” said John Verdi of the Future of Privacy Forum. “It’s out of line with industry best practices, it’s out of line with what leaders in the space do and it’s out of line with consumer expectations.”

from https://thecrimereport.org

Standards Lacking as Police Analyze DNA Themselves

Police booking stations are now using “Rapid DNA” machines. While the devices can provide good leads in cases, experts say they can be misused.

Bensalem, Pa., near Philadelphia, is on the leading edge of a revolution in crime-solving, the New York Times reports. In early 2017, the city’s police booking station became the nation’s first to install a Rapid DNA machine, dubbed the “magic box,” which provides results in 90 minutes. Since then, law enforcement agencies across the U.S. have begun operating similar machines and analyzing DNA on their own. In 2017, President Trump signed the Rapid DNA Act, which starting this year will enable approved booking stations in several states to connect their Rapid DNA machines to Codis, the national DNA database. Law-enforcement officials say the devices have provided leads in hundreds of cases, helping to facilitate arrests and exonerate falsely accused individuals.

Legal experts and scientists are troubled by the way the technology is being used. Police agencies collect DNA not only from people who have been charged with major crimes but also from people who are merely deemed suspicious, permanently linking their genetic identities to criminal databases. “It’s a lot harder to resist the temptation just to run some people’s DNA, just to see if there’s anything useful that you get out of it,” said New York University law Prof. Erin Murphy, author of “Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA.” There is little agreement on which types of genetic material should be run through the device. Valuable genetic evidence is likely to be rendered useless if handled by nonexperts, and police officers risk being misled by the results of Rapid DNA analysis. “There are not the same standards and rules and safeguards that are in place for the national database,” said Michael Coble of the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. “Who is going to change that? I don’t know.”

from https://thecrimereport.org

Ex-Congressman Helps Central America on DNA

Retired Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA) will work for a firm helping Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador develop DNA databases, which they could use to reunite separated families and combat human trafficking. Reichert is a former sheriff who caught the Green River Killer.

Dave Reichert became a national celebrity in 2001 when, as a Washington State sheriff, he used DNA analysis to help capture the elusive serial murderer known as the Green River Killer. That high-profile arrest vaulted Reichert into the U.S. House, where he just completed seven terms. Reichert is joining a firm that is assisting Central American countries in developing DNA databases, which they could use to reunite separated families and combat human trafficking, McClatchy Newspapers reports. “This is something that …brought me back full circle,” Reichert says. Expanding DNA forensics in Central America “will bring me back to the law enforcement realm, but in an entirely different way.”

Reichert is joining Gordon Thomas Honeywell Governmental Affairs, a subcontractor for the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth. The State Department awarded the center a $3.3 million grant to assist Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in expanding their DNA forensics and sharing information. Reichert will meet with Central American officials and help with passage of laws and data-sharing agreements among the three countries. The U.S. push on genetic forensics comes as U.S.-Mexico border security has become the highest-profile issue at the White House. While there’s been a drop in migrants illegally crossing the U.S. border from Mexico, hundreds die every year making the attempt, some of them victims of human trafficking. When bodies are found near the border, they may be examined by experts like Bruce Budowle, a forensics scientist at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. He has the unpleasant task of using DNA to try identifying human remains found in Texas. More expansive DNA databases, he said, would help in identifying children in the border region who are alive but get separated from their parents, or who are being trafficked across the border by criminals.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Forensic Science Reform at ‘Crossroads’

The government’s 2017 decision to shut down the National Commission on Forensic Science has slowed the movement to reform how courts treat forensic evidence, according to a UCLA Law study.

Recent efforts to reform the use of forensic science in the courtroom don’t go far enough to meet widespread criticisms of its validity and reliability, according to a University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) Law School study.

forensic science

UCLA Law Professor Jennifer L. Mnookin examined the state of forensic science reform. Photo courtesy UCLA

In the last two decades, often-used forms of pattern evidence, such as fingerprint, tool mark, and bite mark identification, have faced significant criticism, wrote study author Jennifer L. Mnookin, a law professor at UCLA, in a research paper posted in Daedalus, a journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The Department of Justice’s decision in April 2017 not to renew the charter of  the National Commission on Forensic Science reduces the likelihood of real reform, which Mnookin said puts forensic science  at a “crossroads.”

“Our best hope for sustained, substantial changes necessary for improving forensic science evidence within our system of justice requires the creation of another national commission or other institutional body, made up of both research scientists and other institutional stakeholders,” she wrote.

Mnookin uses a mistaken bite mark identification case to further her point.

Alfred Swinton, was released from prison after serving 18 years of a 60-year  sentence for murder, after an expert admitted ruled the bite mark identification evidence used to convict him no longer seemed persuasive or valid.

The bite mark expert “no longer believed with reasonable medical certainty–or with any degree of certainty –that the marks on [the victim] were created by Mr. Swinton’s teeth, because of the recent developments in the scientific understanding of bite-mark analysis,” odontologist Constantine Karazulas told the Hartford Courant, as quoted by Mnookin.

Is Forensic Science ‘Junk Science’?

Karazulas even called his earlier testimony “junk science” and said he “no longer believes that Mr. Swinton’s detention was uniquely capable of producing the bite marks I observed.”

Mnookin suggested the case indicated a potential sea change for the use of bite mark evidence,  and noted there is a growing consensus among judges that the forensic science community should scale back exaggerated and overconfident assertions of knowledge and authority by forensic scientists.

Mnookin concluded that future reform required an institutional structure adversarial advocates, and practitioners themselves, staffed by accomplished research scientists to pave new ways for credible forensic science evidence to be used in courtrooms.

“We are simply not likely to see continued forward motion unless there is some institutional body to prompt reform, a commission or working group with both convening power and a claim to legitimacy, in which academic researchers and forensic science stakeholders can jointly assess the state of forensic science and continue to push for, and argue about, improvements,” she wrote.

If it can happen, she said, the future of forensic science will almost certainly be far brighter, and the substance of what is used in investigations and offered in courtrooms throughout our nation will be more reliable, more trustworthy, and more scientifically valid.

Additional reading: “Science Takes a Hit at the Department of Justice,” by Jeff Butts, TCR Dec 2018.

A full copy of the report can be downloaded here

Megan Hadley is a senior staff writer at The Crime Report. Comments welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Long-Range Familial Searching Forensics

Good article on using long-range familial searching — basically, DNA matching of distant relatives — as a police forensics tool. EDITED TO ADD (1/5): A smattering of papers on the topic….

Good article on using long-range familial searching -- basically, DNA matching of distant relatives -- as a police forensics tool.

EDITED TO ADD (1/5): A smattering of papers on the topic.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/

700 Murder Cases In Illinois DNA Testing Backlog

The wait for information is “torture,” said the mother of a 2017 murder victim whose case is among the nearly 13,000 in a backlog awaiting testing.

Carmia Tang, like hundreds of Chicagoans, is waiting for evidence from the scene of her son’s 2017 murder to be analyzed. The wait for information is “torture,” said Tang, 46, who spoke at an Illinois Senate Public Health Committee hearing on the state’s backlog in processing DNA. State Sen. Patricia Van Pelt said the backlog includes more than 700 murders, the Chicago Tribune reports. “That tells us that it could be 700 murderers walking around,” she said. Tang has been hoping for more information since Sept. 3, 2017, when she waited up all night for her 20-year-old son, Jeremy, only to answer a call from his phone and hear a police officer tell her Jeremy had been fatally shot.

Illinois State Police officials explained the many factors that lead to delays. Some materials take longer to test. More forensic scientists are needed. Some 12,915 cases are on the backlog, which police officials describe as any case awaiting analysis for more than 30 days. “It’s extremely important that we do not take any shortcuts,” said Illinois State Police Col. Sean Cormier. Still, he acknowledged, processing takes “a lot more time than we would like.” Police are trying to speed the process, from using robotics to hiring more staffers. It takes time to find a qualified forensic scientist, and two years to train one. Cormier estimated that with the right staffing, the processing time for cases in the backlog could be reduced within five years. “Five years is a very long time for murderers to be walking around,” Van Pelt said. Tang cited Chicago’s 17 percent homicide clearance rate and $400,000 the city spent cleaning Grant Park after  a concert. “If we can spend that type of money to clean up a park … we need to hire some people and get this DNA processed,” she said. “We’ve got to do better.”

from https://thecrimereport.org

FBI Takes Down a Massive Advertising Fraud Ring

The FBI announced that it dismantled a large Internet advertising fraud network, and arrested eight people: A 13-count indictment was unsealed today in federal court in Brooklyn charging Aleksandr Zhukov, Boris Timokhin, Mikhail Andreev, Denis Avdeev, Dmitry Novikov, Sergey Ovsyannikov, Aleksandr Isaev and Yevgeniy Timchenko with criminal violations for their involvement in perpetrating widespread digital advertising fraud. The charges include…

The FBI announced that it dismantled a large Internet advertising fraud network, and arrested eight people:

A 13-count indictment was unsealed today in federal court in Brooklyn charging Aleksandr Zhukov, Boris Timokhin, Mikhail Andreev, Denis Avdeev, Dmitry Novikov, Sergey Ovsyannikov, Aleksandr Isaev and Yevgeniy Timchenko with criminal violations for their involvement in perpetrating widespread digital advertising fraud. The charges include wire fraud, computer intrusion, aggravated identity theft and money laundering. Ovsyannikov was arrested last month in Malaysia; Zhukov was arrested earlier this month in Bulgaria; and Timchenko was arrested earlier this month in Estonia, all pursuant to provisional arrest warrants issued at the request of the United States. They await extradition. The remaining defendants are at large.

It looks like an impressive piece of police work.

Details of the forensics that led to the arrests.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/

Critic: Media Overstate Accuracy of Firearms Matching

Two recent media reports contend that guns leave unique marks on bullet casings, allowing investigators to connect casings fired in different incidents. Actually, the validity of such analyses has not been proved, a critic says.

The Texas-based Grits for Breakfast blog is critical of a New York Times article on ballistics evidence that was summarized last week in The Crime Report for failing to acknowledge shortcomings of such evidence and overstating the accuracy of firearms matching. The Times story said that, “Every gun leaves a unique etch on the casings it expels, marks that are like a firearm’s fingerprint.” A recent Houston Chronicle story on the subject made a similar assertion, concluding that “guns’ firing pins leave a mark unique to each gun, allowing investigators to connect casings fired at different shootings.”

The “unique” part is unproved, says Grits for Breakfast. The seminal critique on this topic appeared in the 2009 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, “Strengthening Forensic Science: A Path Forward.” Ballistics matching is one of the areas of non-scientific “forensic science” being challenged in the innocence-era wave of re-evaluation. The report said that the “validity of the fundamental assumptions of uniqueness and reproducibility of firearms-related toolmarks has not yet been fully demonstrated.”

from https://thecrimereport.org

Ballistics Database’s Growth Changes Policing Routines

Police departments are increasingly turning to the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, a central catalog of more than three million detailed images of spent shell casings, to hunt down suspects and not just to help prosecutors win convictions after an arrest.

Thanks in part to an aggressive campaign over the past two years to promote police use of a central catalog of more than three million detailed images of spent shell casings, police departments are increasingly turning to the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network to hunt down suspects and not just to help prosecutors win convictions after an arrest, The New York Times reports. The latest in the Times‘ “American Ammo” series on the business and regulation of bullets describes how more officers are now taking the time to collect shell casings from petty crimes and nonviolent shootings, like when joy riders use stop signs for target practice, because they may eventually help solve more dangerous acts of violence.

Overseen by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the NIBIN database can identify whether the same gun was used in multiple shootings. The equipment for scanning and analyzing bullet casings can cost up to $175,000, and although the ATF sometimes subsidizes this expense, most police departments have to find a way to pay for it themselves. Eleven states still do not have a terminal. But nearly 200 law enforcement agencies — up from 140 in 2012 — now own terminals that allow them to tap into the data, and a clearinghouse in Alabama has reduced turnaround times on potential matches from weeks to mere days. The number of matches nationwide jumped to 47,000 this fiscal year from 11,000 three years ago. Last month, the Justice Department and the ATF delivered new machines to nearly two dozen police departments, vowing that investigative leads would be sent to them within 48 hours of their entering ballistics information into the system.

from https://thecrimereport.org

‘My Conclusions Were Wrong,” Says Expert in TX Murder Case

Bloodstain-pattern analysis was a key to convicting high school principal Joe Bryan of murdering his wife. More than three decades later, an expert witness says, “Some of my testimony was not correct.”

A hearing to determine whether former Texas high school principal Joe Bryan should be granted a new trial for murdering his wife came to a dramatic conclusion on Monday with a surprise, eleventh-hour admission from the expert witness whose testimony had proved critical, reports ProPublica. “My conclusions were wrong,” retired police detective Robert Thorman wrote in an affidavit introduced by the defense regarding his bloodstain-pattern analysis. “Some of the techniques and methodology were incorrect. Therefore, some of my testimony was not correct.”

Bloodstain-pattern analysis is a forensic discipline whose practitioners regard the drops, spatters and trails of blood at a crime scene as clues, which can sometimes be used to reverse-engineer the crime. Thorman had only 40 hours of training when he was called in to work on the Bryan case. His testimony about a blood-speckled flashlight that Mickey’s brother found in the trunk of Bryan’s car four days after the murder made the state’s tenuous theory of the crime seem plausible. At Bryan’s trial in 1986 and again at his 1989 retrial, Thorman testified that tiny flecks of blood on the flashlight could only be “back spatter” — a pattern that indicated a close-range shooting. Thorman said the killer had likely held the flashlight in one hand while firing a pistol with the other. Bryan had been attending a principals’ convention in Austin, 120 miles from where the murder occurred in Clifton, Tx. in the days surrounding the murder. Thorman, now 80, did not specify which parts of his testimony had been incorrect.

from https://thecrimereport.org