One of the biggest cold cases in modern history made news about a year ago with the capture of the alleged “Golden State Killer.” The man identified as the suspect has been charged with 26 counts of murder for his alleged spree of murders and rapes in the 1970s and 80s across California.
If the man had been caught through conventional policework, the case would still be notable for its sheer size and scope. But it has been especially noteworthy because it relied on a practice called “genetic genealogy,” which up until now has mostly been a way for history enthusiasts to build accurate family trees based on genetic data shared on genealogy websites. There is little doubt that, now proven, genetic genealogy will be used to solve more cases alleging violent crimes, sexual assault, homicide and more. The question is: Are we ready for the potential privacy intrusions that come with such changes?
According to a recent article in the New York Times, your name could be extrapolated from a genealogy database even if you’ve never voluntarily submitted a DNA sample. Each of us has at least 800 third cousins, and if just two of them submitted profiles to a database, that could be enough to identify you if someone obtained a sample of your DNA (saliva, blood, semen, etc.).
Keep in mind that these are not government-run criminal databases. Most are private businesses without much oversight as to how databases can be searched and built-upon. Most customers who use the sites opt in to the company’s terms and conditions, but that doesn’t protect family members who can be identified without ever using the company’s services.
There is no question that genetic genealogy can be a tool that greatly serves the public interest – the Golden State Killer case was an example of that. But like any powerful tool used by law enforcement, this one could be harmful as well as helpful. The extent of that harm will depend on whether we place limits on how and when it can be used in a criminal investigation capacity.