Serial Killer Case Highlights Concern of DNA Websites

Privacy advocates say people's health and family histories are vulnerable to prying eyes
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 27, 2018 10:30 AM CDT
Police believe Joseph DeAngelo is the Golden State Killer.   (Sacramento County Sheriff's Office via AP)
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(Newser) – Investigators who used a genealogical website to find the ex-policeman they believe is a serial killer and rapist who terrified California decades ago call the technique groundbreaking. But others say it raises troubling legal and privacy concerns for the millions of people who submit their DNA to such sites to discover their heritage, reports the AP. With "fewer privacy protections than convicted offenders whose DNA is contained in regulated databanks," these people "are unwittingly becoming genetic informants on their innocent family," says Steve Mercer, the chief attorney for the forensic division of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. According to STAT News, most genealogy websites say a customer's genetic information can be shared with law enforcement as long as a warrant is provided.

But the Verge reports Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, was arrested Tuesday after investigators matched crime-scene DNA with genetic material stored by a distant relative on GEDmatch, a website that publicly shares a person's full genetic information, making a warrant unnecessary. "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," the site says. The statement reflects a warning shared by the FTC in December, per Fortune. DNA data "can be very enlightening personally, but a major concern for consumers should be who else could have access to information about your heritage and your health," it reads, noting family members can also be affected.

(Read more Golden State Killer stories.)

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