Professor Natalie Ram publishes article in Science on regulating use of genetic genealogy

Professor Natalie Ram’s article, “Regulating Forensic Genetic Genealogy,” was published in the September 24, 2021 issue of Science, amplifying her work to a broad, international audience. The piece, on which she is lead author with co-authors Erin Murphy (NYU Law) and Sonia Suter (GW Law) draws on Ram’s expertise to provide a template for states and countries to use in building regulations around the use of genetic data by law enforcement to investigate crimes. 

Ram, who teaches in Maryland Carey Law’s Law and Health Care Program, is a top scholar on the intersection of genetic privacy and the law, previously publishing groundbreaking research in Harvard Law ReviewStanford Law ReviewColumbia Law ReviewVirginia Law ReviewNorthwestern Law Review, and in scientific journals, including Science and Nature Biotechnology. She was also a 2021 Greenwall Faculty Scholar in Bioethics. 

Reflected in her scholarship has been Ram’s growing concern about investigators having unfettered access to the private and sensitive information in the consumer genetic databases of companies that trace people's ancestry, often for a fee. Increasingly, she notes, officers are using the data of millions of unsuspecting Americans, looking for genetic relatives that may lead them to suspects, as they did to arrest the Golden State Killer in 2018. Ram, who was in high demand to speak with national media at the time, considers the practice a chilling invasion of privacy. 

After writing an article for the Maryland Bar Journal recommending the regulation of law enforcement’s use of consumer genetic platforms to solve crimes, Ram was invited by Maryland Sen. Charles Sydnor ’00 and Del. Emily Shetty, along with Murphy and Suter, to join a working group to discuss regulations for consideration by the Maryland legislature. The group also included law enforcement, criminal defense lawyers, and forensics professionals. The result was the first legislation passed in the United States creating a regulatory framework for police use of data from consumer genetic platforms. 

Ram is proud to have been part of the processMy work has impacted real policy,” she says, and that is gratifying on a personal and professional level, as well as good for the state of Maryland.” 

Enacted in May 2021, the law, which passed with bipartisan and near unanimous support, and the process by which it was achieved, can now serve as a model for the rest of the world in creating responsible guardrails around the use of this genetic data. For the Science article, Ram and her colleagues fleshed out a roadmap for regulating genetic genealogy in a way that balances privacy and public safety.” The article identifies “six critical features” that other jurisdictions should model as they seek to regulate in this area. 

We are trying to grow the impact of this legislative victory in Maryland to hopefully give rise to other similar legislation elsewhere, says Ram. It’s great if Maryland does the right thing; it’s even better if many other jurisdictions do so. 

And although Ram views the Maryland legislation as a win, she emphasizes that it is just one step in what she expects will be a series of fights. Currently, she is investigating the use of clinical and research data by law enforcement. 

“Good legislation on this particular use of this particular genetic resource by law enforcement,” says Ram,is not the end of the story. 

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