The arrest of a man police say is the Golden State Killer has left many in California breathing a sigh of relief, but the methods used to apprehend the suspect have raised potential privacy concerns involving genealogy websites and DNA testing.
Authorities say a partial DNA match with an unidentified, distant relative who shared their genetic material with a free online database led investigators to Joseph James DeAngelo, a 72-year-old ex-police officer who they arrested outside his Citrus Heights home last week.
Investigators had long been searching for the Golden State Killer, who they believe is behind at least 12 murders, 45 rapes and 120 home burglaries across the state during the 1970’s and ‘80s.
No violation of privacy is thought to have been committed, but the tools used to arrest DeAngelo have served as a reminder of the ways technology surrounding DNA can be used.
"There [aren’t] legal ramifications, so much as policy ramifications — what kind of rules as a society do we want to create around DNA?" Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, told InsideEdition.com. "One of the lessons here is that people need to be very careful about sharing their DNA... because it can be potentially accessed by police and other government agencies."
Companies like AncestryDNA and 23AndMe do not allow their users’ DNA samples to be searched by authorities, unless ordered to do so by a court. However, GEDmatch allows users to upload their DNA information to the site and the samples are widely available for searches by the public, including law enforcement.
In their search for the Golden State Killer, investigators uploaded DNA left at crime scenes to GEDmatch and looked at the connections that popped up. From there, authorities probed the connections and ultimately obtained a direct DNA sample from an unidentified object discarded by DeAngelo, authorities said.
They plugged DeAngelo’s DNA back into the genealogy website and found a match, officials said.
"For law enforcement: Bravo, bravo, bravo. [For] their tenacity, their patience, their unrelenting focus... today is also a reaffirmation in the power and the public safety that is associated with forensic DNA technology," Bruce Harrington, whose brother and sister-in-law were among those murdered by the Golden State Killer, said at a press conference announcing DeAngelo’s arrest. "This isn't a current crime, it's an old crime, but it's finally solved by DNA."
But as Stanley points out, one could argue that DeAngelo’s privacy may have been violated when his DNA was uploaded to the genealogy website.
"Obviously, no one is shedding any tears for a serial killer and rapist, but if we’re going to start allowing the police to post the DNA of suspected criminals open to the public, that raises significant privacy issues," Stanley said. “Not all suspected criminals turn out to be guilty... even if they are, does that mean they lose all their privacy interests in their DNA?"
DNA is the carrier of genetic information, and as such, it includes an “enormously intimate collection of information” about a person, including predilections for diseases, Stanley said.
"It’s important that there be good checks and balances on how government agencies deal with DNA," he said.
Stanley pointed to an instance where a New Orleans man lived in fear of being arrested in a cold case murder he had nothing to do with after investigators found a "partial DNA match" to the man’s father through familial searching.
Michael Usry Sr. submitted his DNA years earlier to the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation for a project sponsored by the Mormon Church. The Foundation’s forensic assets were acquired by Ancestry.com, which received a court order in 2014 requiring it to reveal Usry’s name to the police, The New Orleans Advocate reported. Usry’s genetic profile was a “partial match” to semen found at the crime scene where Angie Dodge was murdered in 1996.
That partial match eliminated Usry Sr., but it led them to Michael Usry Jr., who was ordered to provide his DNA for comparison. For about a month, he lived in fear that he’d be taken into custody regardless of the test results, the Advocate reported.
On Jan. 13, 2015, he was informed that he was eliminated as a suspect.
“You are subjecting yourself and potentially your family members to being subjected to a DNA lineup, and potential false accusations," Stanley said.
"Just because something can be done with today’s technology doesn't mean it always should be done," Stanley said. "The technology is so new — it's the Wild West when it comes to what people can do with DNA. I think we as a country are learning our way about what checks and balances need to be put in place.”
Following DeAngelo's arrest, GEDmatch said in a statement that while officials with the site were not approached by law enforcement or anyone else about the Golden State Killer case, "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."
"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 statement, obtained by ABC News, said. "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. To delete your registration contact firstname.lastname@example.org."
DeAngelo has not yet entered a plea. He is due in court on May 14.