Late last month, authorities charged a man in Sacramento County, California as the so-called Golden State Killer after tracking him down with a private DNA test company, one called GEDmatch. Joseph James DeAngelo is accused of a string of rapes and murders in the 1970s and 80s.
The suspect never gave his own DNA to GEDmatch, but his relatives did, and that allowed police to find him. Some law enforcement officials say such tests are a promising tool to catch criminals, while privacy advocates are worried that innocent people might be swept up if a search is too broad.
Glenn Cohen is a professor at Harvard Law School and the Faculty Director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology & Bioethics. He explained that authorities narrowed down their suspect to one man by using DNA from the crime scene that they submitted to GEDmatch. Then they found family members on the site and were able to narrow it down to DeAngelo.
Police didn’t tell GEDmatch that they were doing the search. The company put out this statement: “We understand that the GEDmatch database was used to help identify the [suspected] Golden State Killer. Although we were not approached by law enforcement or anyone else about this case or about the DNA, it has always been GEDmatch’s policy to inform users that the database could be used for other uses.”
So how protected are people when they give their DNA to these companies?
“In this case there was not a subpoena or a warrant, they just ran the search as individuals," Cohen said. "But in the case of Ancestry.com, they did require a court-order to do it, so it’s a kind of protection.”
It looks like it depends on the company, so you'll want to read the fine print.
Cohen explained that he’s not opposed to police using family members’ DNA to find suspects. He just wants it done in an equitable way.
“These partial matches is a great resource for law enforcement,” Cohen said. “I just want to make sure there is regulation in place, and that we don’t see the people suffering being a distinct and insular minority.”