You’ve probably seen the ads for Ancestry.com’s DNA testing. Their pitch, if you’re even slightly curious about your own family history, is compelling:
Uncover your ethnic mix, discover distant relatives, and find new details about your unique family history with AncestryDNA®.
How do you refuse that premise?
My own son-in-law used 23andMe to test his DNA to see if he could find a cousin given up for adoption at birth more than 35 years ago. Using their DNA sequencing service, he learned his long-lost cousin also submitted his DNA to the service, and for the same reason.
If his birth family was looking for him, this long-lost cousin wanted to be found.
A family connection thought lost forever was rekindled.
It’s a beautiful thing.
Over 30 companies offer to examine your DNA to tell you who you are and where you came from. None of them tell you about the potential downside of voluntarily submitting a sample of your DNA to them.
You abandon your right to privacy.
US Courts Allow DNA Database Searches
“A Florida state judge has reportedly allowed police to search the entirety of the public genealogy website GEDmatch” writes Cassie Martin in a column for ScienceNews.org.
The terms of the Florida warrant granted police investigators access to GEDMatch.com’s complete database, including records for those who did not give permission to be included in law enforcement searches.
Steve Mercer, the chief attorney for the forensic division of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, explains why this is a problem.
“People who submit DNA for ancestors testing are unwittingly becoming genetic informants on their innocent family. They have fewer privacy protections than convicted offenders whose DNA is contained in regulated databanks.”
This is a serious blow to privacy rights.
An Irresistible Investigative Carrot
From the New York Times:
For police officers around the country, the genetic profiles that 20 million people have uploaded to consumer DNA sites represent a tantalizing resource that could be used to solve cases both new and cold.
But for years, the vast majority of the data have been off limits to investigators. The two largest sites, Ancestry.com and 23andMe, have long pledged to keep their users’ genetic information private, and a smaller one, GEDmatch, severely restricted police access to its records this year.
DNA Assists Capture of the Golden State Killer
The Golden State Killer, who raped over 50 women and murdered at least 13 others, was apprehended after police ran DNA from a series of cold cases through the GEDmatch online DNA database.
Investigators, at their wits end to capture the man who terrified California for over a dozen years, figured they had nothing to lose by uploading the killer’s DNA to GEDMatch and see if anything popped out.
They were probably surprised when their gamble paid off with information about a distant relative. While nobody knows for certain, that relative probably paid for a DNA test through Ancestry.com or 23AndMe.com, the two most popular DNA testing sites, and uploaded it to GEDMatch’s database.
This allowed them to track down the ex-police officer turned rapist and murderer and eventually arrest him.
On April 24, 2018, United States Navy veteran and former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo was charged with eight counts of first-degree murder based entirely on the DNA match investigators found.
The discovery and capture of an infamous serial killer by DNA testing means this technology is an enticing carrot for law-enforcement – one so appealing most police agencies cannot ignore it – especially whe,n in cold cases like the Golden State Killer, there are so few options for solving these crimes.
So What’s the Point of This Column?
I want you to know how your DNA could be used, without your permission or even your knowledge, in some circumstances.
Am I against police investigators using DNA to solve cold cases or other difficult-to-solve crimes?
I believe police should use all the tools at their disposal to catch heinous criminals like the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo.
However, I also believe our right to privacy should not be extinguished simply because we want to learn about our own personal history.
Where do you stand on this issue? Should police be granted access to DNA databases whenever they want? Or should there be strict restrictions on their access given the deeply personal nature of DNA?
Let me know what you think in the comments section below.