How Genealogy is Solving Crimes but Invading Your Privacy

The DNA given to sites such as 23andMe and Ancestry can allow people to learn about their genetics but it could potentially be available to police. This was the case with the notorious Golden State Killer who terrorized the state of California for 12 years. The convict, Joseph James DeAngelo committed at least 13 murders, 50 rapes and over 100 burglaries. A relative of DeAngelo submitted their DNA to genealogy site GEDmatch and from there, detectives could partially match that DNA to the DNA found at crime scenes.

GEDmatch is a Florida based website created in 2011 by two volunteer genealogists. One of the co-founders, Curtis Rogers, was unaware that police could access the DNA given to his company, as he was not approached by law enforcement in the Golden State Killer case. He told the AP "This was done without our knowledge, and it's been overwhelming."

GEDmatch also allowed investigators to solve the murders of a Canadian couple killed in Seattle in 1987. The murders of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg remained unsolved until police were able to work with a genealogist and single in on the killer: William Earl Talbott II. Through the DNA site, they were able to pinpoint second cousins to the suspect and from there find common ancestors. Ultimately, the police identified the culprit from the family tree and other details regarding the case.

Concerns of Privacy

While it's great to bring offenders such as DeAngelo and Talbott to justice, privacy issues arise with this form of crime solving. When sending off their DNA, most are unaware that their DNA may be available to law enforcement. In an investigation, police will begin by seeing if they can find a match for the DNA of the unknown suspect in the federal government’s genetic information database, known as the Combined DNA Index System or “CODIS.” They can also do a familial search to see any close biological relatives. If both searches prove unsuccessful, investigators may turn to private genealogy sites for help.

When these third-party sites agree to aid law enforcement, the police are then able to see if the DNA is similar to anyone who has given their DNA to the site. This presents a privacy issue, as these people did not consent for police to have access to their DNA. The implications of this don’t just end with the matter of consent, however.

You can still be at risk for incrimination of a crime even if you do not submit DNA yourself. This is because if a family member gives their DNA to an independent site and it's similar enough to yours, police can connect you to a crime. Additionally, the DNA recorded on these sites can have prolonged ramifications, as future generations, including children and grandchildren can be at risk for incrimination.

23andMe and Ancestry have confided that DNA submitted to them can possibly be given to police if they have a warrant. However, 23andMe has received five requests from investigators and they have yet to turn any of them over. Ancestry, on the other hand, has given over DNA to police before.

Genealogy isn’t always reliable

DNA is often recognized as a reliable way to connect criminals to their crimes. However, there have been false positive occurrences leading to investigations. Filmmaker, Michael Usry, from New Orleans became a suspect in a murder case because of familial DNA. Police proceeded to interrogate him without a lawyer present. They were also able to attain a search warrant forcing Ursy to give up his DNA based purely on circumstantial evidence. Then for a month, he waited anxiously for the results to come back. In the end, the DNA results proved he wasn’t a match with the perpetrator.

This instance shows the unreliability of using genealogy as evidence and supports the argument that the police should not have access to DNA that is given to third-party sites. Alternatively, those who defend police access to independent DNA sites may argue that genealogy hasn’t led to anyone actually being imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit. This potentially may be because cases are rarely decided on one piece of evidence but on many factors, such as witnesses and alibis.

Use for discrimination 

While some are content with the police having access to their DNA, others are more concerned with who could potentially gain access to this information. This would include life insurance companies and employers. Insurance companies could discriminate against customers based on any predisposition for disease etc. Employers could also discriminate in the hiring process. For instance, they could potentially be less likely to hire someone who risks developing Alzheimer's. However, there is some relief for advocates of privacy rights, as both Ancestry and 23andMe allow customers to delete DNA results online.

So before sending your spit off to a lab, be sure you are comfortable with the potential risks of your DNA being recorded.