Why the Golden State Killer Investigation Is Cause for Concern

This piece was originally published by The Washington Post

When DNA evidence led to the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo in the Golden State Killer case last month, there was considerable relief and celebration among investigators, survivors, and the public-at-large. But as the public learned the details of the investigation — that investigators had uploaded a detailed genetic profile created from crime-scene DNA to a public genealogical database to find matches to relatives — companies such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com were quick to announce that they hadn’t been involved

Here’s why. 

Testing DNA holds immense promise: It can help us identify and ultimately treat health risks, teach us about our origins and even reunite families. But those benefits are only possible because our DNA holds deeply sensitive information about us — and about our relatives. In submitting our DNA for testing, we give away data that exposes not only our own physical- and mental-health characteristics but also those of our parents, our grandparents and, as in DeAngelo’s case, our third cousins — not to mention relatives who haven’t been born yet. 

This sort of “networked privacy” isn’t unique to genetic material. It emerges any time we share information with others, including all the photographs shared online in which we’re often unwitting extras. It could also be infringed through social media relationships, as we saw for the tens of millions of Facebook users who recently had their information exposed to Cambridge Analytica because of choices only tens of thousands made. 

We should be able to access the benefits of technological advances without giving up our rights. 

For starters, private companies have an important role to play in safeguarding sensitive information. 23andMe already has a commendable policy explaining that its results cannot be considered “proof in a legal context” because the company lacks “the means to reliably connect any particular DNA sample or account to an individual.” The company also bars law enforcement from submitting samples from incarcerated people or those charged with a crime for testing. 

But 23andMe and similar companies such as Ancestry.com also state that they will comply with “valid legal process” seeking consumer information. It is not clear from the companies’ terms of service whether that applies only to usernames, photos, and credit-card information, or if it extends to genetic material as well. All of these companies should make clear that the genetic material they collect from users is not available to serve as legal proof and that law enforcement cannot use their services to test prisoners and arrested individuals or to conduct investigations. Otherwise, the public may have to choose between accessing the benefits of genetic science and maintaining its privacy rights.

Even if companies take these much-needed steps, the onus remains on government actors to protect our rights. We shouldn’t have to rely on changeable company policies to protect such private information.

Moreover, the privacy concerns raised by the Golden State Killer investigation don’t disappear just because GEDmatch, the genealogical database investigators reportedly used, was a public site. In fact, investigators’ decision to upload a detailed genetic profile generated from crime-scene DNA to a public website likely violated the alleged perpetrator’s privacy rights. Even if DeAngelo is found guilty of the crimes he is accused of, penalties for such crimes do not typically entail releasing a person’s entire genetic makeup. People may not be so troubled by such an intrusion when it comes to a serial killer, but imagine the implications of using this technique for shoplifters or trespassers.

The lines we draw for this case may well provide a roadmap for investigations of crimes in the future. And the techniques used here are likely only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what investigators will soon have the technological power to do.

Now is the time for legislators, the courts and law enforcement to ensure that the benefits of genetic-science technology don’t come at the cost of our privacy rights. And our legal system should also recognize that just because information isn’t secret doesn’t mean that people don’t have an interest in controlling who can see it.

Blockbuster investigations, as gratifying as they are, shouldn’t obscure the very real dangers of government access to sensitive information.

View comments (26)
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Geoffrey

The Supreme Court has never held that there is a reasonable expectation in the privacy of a person's family tree, and they never will. I can see insurance companies using a person's genetic information to discriminate and minimize risk, or employers making employment decisions or governments making immigration decisions, but we can have laws and treaties to prevent that. As far as using a person's family tree for law enforcement purposes, what is the problem? It would be fantastic if law enforcement could upload a DNA profile and instantly retrieve a large family tree and list of possible suspects. So what if it is used for shoplifters and trespassers? What is the problem with that? The article doesn't explain why that is a bad thing. It just says, "imagine the implications" without telling us what the implications are. Not good enough of an argument, sorry.

Anonymous

There's no evidence that the privacy rights of the alleged perpetrator were violated. Law enforcement used the DNA found at a crime scene and uploaded to Gedmatch. DNA found at a crime scene is not protected by privacy rights.

Anonymous

I can say that if anyone in my family was a serial killer I would offer up my DNA to help solve the case.

Anonymous

If you haven’t broken the law, then you have nothing to fear. If your ancestors or descendants have broken the law, then they should be apprehended by any means necessary. What if it was your mother, daughter, sister or father that was a victim? What then? Would you want justice? What if it was you? Come down off of your high horse and step into the world of science and reality.

Jessica

He murdered about 12 + people and raped dozens of women, he doesn't get the same rights the rest of us have. Period. You should be focusing on that in your story, not the GSK's rights!

Anonymous

Why is this a concern when it is helping to catch people who have broken the law? If that is a concern of yours then either 1) don't use genealogy websites and/or 2) don't commit crimes...?

Anonymous

Everybody in the US, and in fact in the world should submit a DNA sample. Let us rid the US of crime now.

Anonymous

I don't give a damn about what's said above because it led to this scumbag so that's all that matters.

Alex Chilton

You are a moron. A serial killer was caught.

Rima Singh

What privacy rights does a perpetrator have when he rapes and leaves his semen or DNA in non-consenting victims? You guys are insane.

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