Who are you? We all want to know who we are and where we come from? What is our family history? Using genealogy sites is fun and can be eyeopening too. But, sometimes probing into the past can reveal news and information that is shocking, hurtful, and unintended.
This week, a suspected serial killer and rapist was arrested as a result of police searching public DNA records checked against genetic profiles from genealogical websites that collect DNA samples to help people learn about their family backgrounds, and not ever were these samples intended for criminal investigations. But, now they are being used this way, and the consequences can be troubling. Both to the perpetrators and the innocents.
While the outcome is good, and a suspected significant evildoer has been taken into custody for prosecution, this method to identify a suspect raises all kinds of privacy questions.
Joseph James DeAngelo, who authorities suspect is the so-called Golden State Killer responsible for at least a dozen murders and 50 rapes in the 1970s and ’80s, did not enter a plea during his first court appearance.
DeAngelo was arraigned Friday in California’s Sacramento County Superior Court on two counts of murder. He was denied bail.
The 72-year-old former police officer was arrested more than three decades after the last killing with the help of information from an online genealogical site.
Investigators haven’t disclosed many key elements about how and why they took this very unusual step to find a suspect.
The Sacramento County district attorney’s office said Thursday that DNA from one of the crime scenes was checked against genetic profiles from genealogical websites that collect DNA samples to help people learn about their family backgrounds.
Authorities zeroed in on DeAngelo after determining one of his relatives whose genetic information was on the site was a familial match for the DNA from the crime scene.
They then set up surveillance at DeAngelo’s home in Citrus Heights, Calif., just outside Sacramento and collected two “discarded DNA samples” from him. One didn’t contain enough DNA but the other tied him to the DNA evidence.
Authorities did not identify the DNA websites that were used.
Ancestry.com and 23andMe, two of the largest companies that produce genetic profiles for customers who provide DNA samples, say they don’t co-operate with law enforcement unless they receive a court order.
Both said Thursday they did not receive a court order in the DeAngelo case and were not otherwise involved.
People seeking information and history about their families readily subscribe to online sites aimed at providing genetic legacy knowledge. Without thinking beyond the moment, they freely provide DNA samples and pay the fees to learn about where they come from and with whom they may be related.
If you do submit samples for DNA testing, then how long should it be stored? Obviously, it is the database of samples that bring the family history to life. The larger the database, then the better the family genealogy report. So, DNA storage is necessary for these family history sites to function. But, clearly there is a risk that needs to be considered.
These samples are provided for a single purpose – for genetic family history.
So, when the police use these samples for crime fighting, it may be deemed to be a conflict under law. Is it an invasion of privacy? Is the DNA sample being used for purposes other than what the donor agreed to and intended? In the USA, this may be deemed legal and in fact, eight states including California where this case is underway have legislated it to be permissible.
But, what about in Canada and the European Union where privacy laws are stricter than in the USA? Would this method of criminal identification be permitted under our laws? Perhaps, no. Clearly, it will need to be tested in the courts.
This practice is a classic double-edged sword scenario. It cuts two ways. On one hand, we absolutely do want to arrest and prosecute criminals to the fullest extent of the law. But, on the other hand, do we accept that our privacy can be so easily violated and our personal information and use of online and social sites can be utilized for any purpose that we did not agree to in advance, that we did not intend. This is a dangerous and serious question that may not result in a win / win outcome.
Huncar, A. (2018). Probing your DNA could trigger future privacy violations. CBC News. Retrieved on April 28, 2018 from, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/dna-testing-1.4632272
The Associated Press. (2018). A look at the DNA testing that ID’d the suspected Golden State serial killer. Retrieved on April 28, 2018 from, http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/dna-testing-genealogy-golden-state-killer-1.4638006
About the Author:
Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless and digital communications technologies.
He is a Senior Executive with IBM Canada’s GTS Network Services Group. Over the past 13 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He was previously a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).
Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V).
He serves as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.
He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.
He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has diplomas and certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology.
This article is a mash-up of various other articles as referenced above.