From the impossible burger to impeccably fast Wi-Fi to a life-changing vaccine, modern science has significantly improved the way we live today. Humans can travel globally in a matter of hours, retrieve information in seconds, and now, with companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com, can submit DNA to uncover vital information about their lineage, as well as be informed of any potential health risks they may face in the future.
The science is undoubtedly incredible and has brought families together, educated customers on their ancestry, invoked interest in cultures, religions, and backgrounds, and recently, has even helped solve some of the most notorious cold cases to date.
For families of murdered victims and to bring justice to those responsible, it’s beyond thrilling when a cold case gets solved, and now with the help of genetic testing, it’s becoming increasingly common, but as investigators are obtaining the information from secured databases, many have called into question whether the practice is ethical.
The First Case Solved Through Genetic Testing
Forensic DNA testing has come a long way since it was first established in the 1980s, tying Colin Pitchfork to the rape and murder of 15-year-old Dawn Ashworth in Leicestershire, England.
Genetics professor, Alec Jeffreys, was tasked by investigators to test thousands of men in the area after his many successful findings using DNA in paternity and immigration cases. Pitchfork’s arrest was a breakthrough in modern technology, paving the way for DNA research to expand far beyond limits anyone thought imaginable.
GEDmatch and a Notorious Serial Killer
I happen to be a great fan of Michelle McNamara, an American true-crime writer who had a deep-rooted obsession with tracking down a sadistic serial killer who preyed upon innocent Californians from 1973—1986.
McNamara coined the monster “The Golden State Killer.” Before her untimely death, she was in the midst of writing I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, an in-depth look into the investigation of the unknown assailant. The book was released two years after McNamara’s passing and two months before investigators stunned the country in announcing they had made a formal arrest of The Golden State Killer.
McNamara’s book was praised for her extensive investigative work and for the heightened awareness her coverage of the case brought in both media attention and detective interest, but it was the formal DNA match identified through GEDmatch that led to the arrest and eventual conviction of a man who evaded investigators for over three decades.
Detectives had a semen sample of the perpetrator obtained from an old crime scene that was instrumental in creating a profile of the killer. This DNA profile was implemented into GEDmatch’s database, aiming to identify similar markings among its millions of users.
Since it’s rare to find an immediate relative, such as a parent or first cousin, scientists compared the DNA sample to third cousins, creating a family tree that shared approximately one percent of the killer’s DNA.
After sorting through marriage certificates, obituaries, and extensive social media investigating, detectives narrowed down a small number of potential relatives. Since they also had a description of The Golden State Killer’s appearance from a few living survivors, their pool diminished even further, finally leading to the arrest and conviction of Joseph James DeAngelo.
Where is the Line?
Not many will argue the importance of catching and imprisoning a deranged serial killer, but there are many that will question whether it’s ethical to use online genealogy data to do so. Allowing a third party, such as an investigator, to sift through personal details without the user’s consent, raises valid points about privacy rights.
According to a recent study conducted by Pew Research Center, the United States is split. 48 percent answered that they are comfortable with DNA companies sharing their information with law enforcement, while only a third of those surveyed said they were not.
In addition to privacy and consent, what, if any, are the limitations as to what types of crimes can be used through consumer DNA databases? Will the future allow investigators to utilize these services for petty crimes or non-violent infractions?
To date, GEDMatch firmly states law enforcement can only access their information for rape or homicide cases, but the company made a controversial exception in 2019 when Utah police were given permission to use GEDMatch to find an assault suspect.
Although the business claims it was a one-time anomaly, it further proves that without proper regulations, at-home DNA companies can, and will, infringe on the privacy of its users, and while the science has done tremendous work in bringing justice for some; for others, it could lead to trouble.