Golden State Killer Case Highlights Privacy Concerns with Genealogy Sites

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DNA, the building blocks of all life from bacteria to flowers to humans, rapidly is impacting multiple areas of our lives.  In addition to helping us travel the road to personalized medicine, it has been monumental in the advancement of criminal investigation to free the innocent and convict the guilty.  It also has growing popularity in the private sector allowing individuals to learn about their lineage.



Recently two of these worlds collided making international headlines and bringing not only fascination and amazement, but also new concerns of privacy.

Using a genealogy website, investigators recently identified the suspected Golden State Killer, who terrorized the state of California with a string of horrifying rapes and murders during the 1970s and 80s. The identification of Joseph James DeAngelo, a former police officer, came when investigators entered the DNA information collected at crime scenes to GENmatch, a free open-source website that pools together genetic profiles uploaded by users seeking to conduct research or fill in gaps in their family trees.

Genealogy sites require a customer to submit a saliva or cell sample swab, or the customer may enter raw genetic data in the form of endless A’s and C’s and G’s and T’s. It is speculated that the latter was most likely how investigators entered DeAngelo’s DNA.

The search results obtained in the California criminal investigation led to a pool of customers who shared DNA commonality and appeared to be related to the suspect.   These relatives were among the millions of paying consumers who submitted their DNA for genealogy analysis in order to track down long-lost family members, learn more about their ancestry, or gauge their risk for medical conditions.  In this case, investigation ultimately led to the identification of the 72 year old DeAngelo.

According to the New York Times, investigators got access to GENmatch’s database by creating a fake profile and name on the site. Investigators may have also used other commercial sites, although the investigators did not indicate the sites names.  As far as we know, investigators did not use a warrant in its search.

According to STAT News, privacy advocates have expressed concern about the sharing of information between genetic laboratories and law enforcement without use of a warrant. They fear overreach on the part of law enforcement.   Some resolution to these questions may be answered as DeAngelo’s case progresses, but one thing is sure, times are rapidly changing.

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About the author

Dr. John Daly

John T. Daly, M.D. received his MD degree at Weill Cornell University Medical College, performed his internship and residency in Anatomic and Clinical pathology at Duke University Medical Center and a residency in Forensic Pathology at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Chapel Hill, N.C. He is board certified in anatomic, clinical and forensic pathology. Through the course of his career, Dr. Daly has had extensive experience directing and advising laboratories of all sizes including physician office practices, Federal Health Clinics, surgical centers, Community Hospitals and the integrated academic health system clinical laboratories of Duke Medicine. He retired as Director of Laboratories of Duke Medicine, and continues his affiliation as a member of the emeritus staff.


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