After 40 years, California authorities last week arrested a person they believe to be the “golden state killer,” responsible for at least 12 murders and dozens of rapes.
But the way police were able to catch this suspect is controversial to say the least. They tracked down Joseph DeAngelo through DNA that the suspect’s family members’ had uploaded onto an online genealogy website. Proponents say its revolutionary, but critics have called it “dystopian.”
This raises ethical concerns about the possibility of authorities using genetic databases as law enforcement tools. Some privacy advocates say that would mean turning family members into genetic informants without their consent, according to a Washington Post story about the case.
Dr. Bobby LaRue, associate professor of forensic science at Sam Houston State University, who specializes in forensic genetics, says that so far, Texas law enforcement agencies aren’t using techniques like this.
“The state of Texas only queries against something called the CODIS database,” LaRue says. “They consisted of the federal database, the state database and the local databases as well. But we are talking about [information of] convicted offenders and in some very extreme cases, arrestees.”
LaRue sees huge ethical issues in ancestry websites allowing third parties to have access to DNA information that users submit, and also in making users waive their rights to protect their genetic information.
“Think about for instance your social media,” he says. “What privacy rights you sign to waive on your social media, for your pictures and that sort of things? It’s a similar thing, you are just doing it with your genetic information.”
For investigators, it is very easy to identify a suspect using a family member’s DNA found on a genealogy website.
“You can kind of follow this common alleles -these parts of your genome that get passed from parent to child- back through the pedigree,” LaRue says. “Its is pretty similar to the way you do a paternity test, except that this is doing a paternity test against a database that’s online.”
The levels of effectiveness of this technique are very high, up to a million to one matches, LaRue says. That is why there are very strict guidelines for how that is used in Texas.
“It is a very powerful technique,” LaRue says. “I don’t claim to be an expert on the policy but we do have some very strict guidelines for how that is done. Both the Texas Forensic Science Commission and DPS have it laid out where it’s kind of a last case scenario.”
Written by César Lopez-Linares.