What are the risks of using DNA websites in criminal investigations?

By Rosemary Collins, 3 May 2018 - 10:00am

A family history DNA site was used to identify the suspected Golden State Killer - but what does this mean for the safety of our genetic data?


Joseph DeAngelo was arrested on suspicion of being the Golden State Killer following a search on GEDmatch (Credit: Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images)

Revelations that police in California used DNA samples from the GEDmatch database to identify a suspected serial killer highlight the need for family history researchers to decide how they want their data to be used, genetic genealogy expert Debbie Kennett told Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine.

On 25 April, 72-year-old Joseph DeAngelo was arrested on suspicion of being the Golden State Killer, the criminal believed to be behind at least 12 murders, 46 rapes and hundreds of break-ins in California in the 1970s and 1980s.

Paul Holes, a retired investigator with the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office, told reporters that he had a breakthrough in the case after uploading a DNA sample from one of the crime scenes to GEDmatch.

He was able to use the sample to trace DeAngelo's family tree back to his 4x great grandfather, and identify distant living relatives.

This allowed investigators to narrow down their search using factors such as ethnicity, height and residence until they identified DeAngelo as the suspect.

Despite the positive outcome of this investigation, Debbie Kennett said she was concerned about the use of DNA samples in future investigations.

"The principal concern is GEDmatch," she said. "It's designed as a genealogy database and I think most people don't reasonably expect the database to be used for a criminal investigation, so there's an issue first of all of consent."

She pointed out that, while a lot of users were happy their DNA could be used to catch a killer, there was also a danger that misidentification of data would lead to people being wrongly identified as a suspect.

"If your DNA was used to falsely accuse someone of a crime, how would you feel about that?" she said.

"People have to decide for themselves."

She called for police in America to be "better regulated" when using DNA databases to stop them from uploading suspects' DNA without oversight.

Commercial DNA testing companies have privacy policies designed to protect data from being used for other purposes, but these do not apply to GEDmatch, a free public database where users upload the results of DNA tests.

A spokesperson for 23andMe, for example, commented: "23andMe's policies prohibit the company from voluntarily working with law enforcement."

In a statement, GEDmatch said that it was not approached by law enforcement about the case, but that it had a policy of informing users that the database could be used for other purposes.

"While the database was created for genealogical research, it is important that GEDmatch participants understand the possible uses of their DNA, including identification of relatives that have committed crimes or were victims of crimes," it added.

"If you are concerned about non-genealogical uses of your DNA, you should not upload your DNA to the database and/or you should remove DNA that has already been uploaded."
 

Historic wedding videos available for free on BFI Player
previous news Article
Genealogy news roundup: TheGenealogist adds Warwickshire parish records
next news Article
Historic wedding videos available for free on BFI Player
previous news Article
Genealogy news roundup: TheGenealogist adds Warwickshire parish records
next news Article
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here