Written on behalf of Brian Kabateck
June 4, 2018
Fears about the privacy of our data have become common ever since reports of credit monitoring hacks invading consumer’s privacy have come to light. Now websites like Ancestry and 23andMe which provide genetic testing to its consumers are under scrutiny for potentially releasing sensitive information that can be used against individuals. Although the websites provide extensive information on family history, they have also been subject to controversy due to what scientists describe as genetic discrimination, where people discriminate others due to their genotype. Many consumers typically use these types of sites to reconnect with lost family and to find out where it is they’re from. But now, investigators and detectives have found another reason to use these websites.
A recent high-profile arrest involving a notorious killing spree has many people asking how our genetic information is being used and who has access to it. In April, 32 years after the so-called Golden State Killer began his rampage, police arrested Joseph James DeAngelo in Sacramento thanks to a genealogy website. Police believe he is the killer who is suspected to be behind 12 deaths and 50 rapes in at least 10 counties in California. The arrest was made on the basis of genetic information, with detectives matching a DNA sample from his home to evidence from the investigation. DNA evidence is used to implicate criminals every day, but the method used in this case was new, and some people are questioning if the use of these websites is an invasion of their privacy.
The website used to match the killer’s DNA was GEDMatch, a website for regular consumers and professional researchers and genealogists. The website allows people to enter their DNA profiles or genealogical data, which includes the information received from genetic testing companies such as 23andMe or Ancestry. Although the investigation for the Golden State Killer lasted many years, the DNA testing took four months to get to the right people. With DeAngelo, there were over 100 distant relatives listed with some percentage of DNA match. Investigators claim that they only had to contact two people that they found through the website in order to get to the killer.
After the capture of the Golden State Killer, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s office in the state of Washington announced that it had a suspect in custody in the rape and murder of a young couple who was at the time vacationing in Washington. William Earl Talbott II of SeaTac, Washington was arrested. An important break came as a result of DNA investigating techniques similar to the ones used to solve the Golden State killer case. As in DeAngelo’s case, investigators uploaded DNA taken from crime scene evidence to the genealogy site GEDMatch. That DNA profile, which had been extracted from semen, led them to second cousins whose genetic information was available on the site. Detectives kept surveillance on Talbott for several days, and gathered DNA from a cup he threw out, which would confirm a match from the website that led to his arrest.
After revelations that it had been used in the Golden State killer investigation, some GEDMatch users removed their profiles from the site or updated their settings, protesting that they it was an invasion of privacy. Other users defended the approach, arguing that if they had violent criminals in their families, they would help detectives arrest them. Worries remain that the use of forensic DNA analysis may lead to discrimination, especially if police target certain groups by using racial or ethnic genotype information when looking for suspects.
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