Golden State Killer case raises privacy concerns about DNA submitted to genealogy websites

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Authorities have revealed that they were able to track down California's most elusive killer by using a genealogy website.

After the major break in the decades-old case of the Golden State Killer, the usage of familial data in a police investigation is now in the spotlight. Investigators said they matched DNA from one of the crime scenes to the suspect’s relative on the site. This allowed authorities to track down the accused killer, 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo, at his home in Sacramento.

Investigators conducted surveillance on DeAngelo and waited for him to discard something into public domain in order to get his DNA. Ultimately, this led authorities to match him to the crime scenes in the case.

“I suspect this is happening much more frequently and that we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg,” said Steve Mercer, an attorney for RaquinMercer and the former chief attorney for Forensics Division of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.

However, this development is also sparking some privacy concerns. Ancestry websites are certainly becoming more and more popular. But Mercer is warning of the potential of misuse.

“Family members are under genetic surveillance when one of their family is arrested,” said Mercer.

He said the high-profile arrest of DeAngelo should raise legal and privacy concerns for the millions who have submitted their DNA to an ancestry site database as there are no strong privacy laws to keep police from trolling.

“They have DNA from a crime scene and they don't get a match in the regulated data bank and they don't have any other leads, then they are looking to start harvesting information from private DNA data banks,” said Mercer. “Of course this has been a phenomenon over the last decade with these ancestry data banks growing enormously and containing vast numbers of DNA profiles. Of course, it's the Wild West. It's unregulated and there is no court order that is needed. It can be as simple as a subpoena that is issued by law enforcement or a grand jury or a prosecutor’s office and the information can be readily accessed.”

Mercer said there needs to be protections and safeguards at the federal level.

The genealogy website used to find the Golden State Killer suspect was Florida-based GEDmatch. The company said in a statement on Friday that they had no idea its services were involved in the manhunt for the Golden State Killer and they were never contacted by law enforcement or anyone else about this case or the DNA profile that was used.