Genealogy & DNA: the Killer App

Everyone was expecting some form of 23andMe or AncestryDNA to explode in a privacy battle at some point. People have foretold of the potential problem of a massive database of DNA, which not only can link your DNA, but that of people related to you, even distantly.

If it had blown up sufficiently with a data breach or data malfeasance, I could see each of those companies struggling, but that’s not what happened.

In fact, another company, GEDMatch, is at the heart of the matter, and their data looks like it literally caught one of the most famous serial killers of all time.

According to the New York Times (and countless other news outlets), the Golden State Killer, one of the most horrific, unsolved cases in modern history now has a suspect in custody, thanks to genetic data supplied by GEDMatch:

Investigators used DNA from crime scenes that had been stored all these years and plugged the genetic profile of the suspected assailant into an online genealogy database. One such service, GEDmatch, said in a statement on Friday that law enforcement officials had used its database to crack the case. Officers found distant relatives of Mr. DeAngelo’s and, despite his years of eluding the authorities, traced their DNA to his front door.  – New York Times

Obviously, there is a lot that still needs to play out, but it appears that it wasn’t even the suspect’s own DNA in the database, but rather the DNA of some of his relatives that provided the markers needed to find him.

In terms of privacy, there are a ton of questions to be answered. Who owns this data? Who should have access? How do lawyers deal with an open database of data like this?

The questions are many and they are multi-faceted. That said, because this case is receiving national attention and perhaps global interest, the questions are going to need some answers in short order.

If a database has information that can, with strong accuracy, identify you or point to you, regardless of your inclusion in that database or your consent, then how can it be blocked from being used? To catch a killer, should there be a limitation for investigators when accessing this database?

We are all going to find out very soon.

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