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"Golden State Killer" suspect's capture raises questions about DNA websites

Posted: 5:31 PM, Apr 27, 2018
Updated: 2018-04-27 22:31:19Z
Suspect capture raises questions about DNA sites
Suspect capture raises questions about DNA sites

Authorities in California used DNA testing and online genealogy database to track down the suspected Golden State Killer

According to NBC News, authorities in California arrested Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, after matching crime-scene DNA with genetic material stored by a distant relative on an online site, according to NBC News. 

The site used to find him is called GEDmatch.com, a free open-source website that allows people to upload their genetic information retrieved from genetic testing companies, mainly to find other relatives or for research.

"It has always been GEDmatch's policy to inform users that the database could be used for other uses, as set forth in the Site Policy," the website said in a statement to NBC News, adding that participants' information could help in the "identification of relatives that have committed crimes or were victims of crimes."

Arthur Derse, the Director of the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities at the Medical College of Wisconsin, noted the online genetic profile used in the Golden State Killer case was readily available online and didn’t require a court order. 

“There’s no question this is an incredibly powerful tool to be able to identify individuals who may be suspected in crimes,” Derse said by phone Friday. 

Although he added law enforcement agencies can request DNA samples that are not publicly available. 

“There’s no law that restricts access to that information,” Derse said. 

Several of the websites that use DNA to trace your ancestry told us they do not hand any DNA samples or information over to law enforcement investigators. 

“Broadly speaking, it's our policy to resist law enforcement inquiries to protect customer privacy,” said Scott Hadly, a spokesperson for 23andMe. “23andMe has never given customer information to law enforcement officials.” 

In regards to whether any information is publicly available online, Hadly said: 

“Our platform is private, and does not support the comparison of genetic data processed by any third party to genetic profiles within our database. Further, we do not share customer data with any public databases, or with entities that may increase the risk of law enforcement access,” he said.

"Living DNA is under strict English and EU laws when it comes to data security,” said Susan Roth, a spokesperson for the company Living DNA. “We would resist any request to access customer data without the consent of the customer, and would only release data where legally compelled to do so, e.g by where ordered by a court having jurisdiction over us.” 

“We have not been asked to provide, nor have we provided any customer details/data to any authority worldwide including the US authorities,” Roth added. 

The Privacy Policy for the website Family Tree DNA indicates it may disclose personal information from customers, “as may be required by law, regulatory authorities, legal process.” 

According to Ancestry.com’s privacy statement, it may share personal information if it’s believed reasonably necessary to: “comply with valid legal process (e.g.subpoenas, warrants); enforce or apply the ancestry terms and conditions; protect the security or integrity of the services; or protect the rights, property, safety, of Ancestry, our employees, or users.”  

Derse said it’s important that users who submit their DNA to the various websites read all the necessary fine print and be cognizant of what they’re handing over. 

“You have to realize that when you’re giving up a DNA sample, you’re giving up your entire DNA sequence, which can easily identify you,” Derse said. 

Maggie Benavides said she submitted her DNA to a website for genealogical testing a couple years ago. 

“I wanted to see exactly where my family comes from,” she said. 

Benavides added she would likely pay more attention to the website’s terms and conditions if submitting her sample today. 

“I might be a little more hesitant knowing what I know now,” she said. 

But she added she would be willing to take the test again. 

“I’ve met new cousins!” Benavides said. “So no regrets - definitely no regrets.”