Good News: Golden State Killer Caught, Bad News: Now Your Privacy May Be at Risk

The former cop dubbed the Golden State killer had eluded police for decades.  He was finally arrested and had linked him to more than 50 rapes and 12 murders from 1976 to 1986.  He was nabbed through his own DNA.

Even as scientific experts applauded this week’s arrest of the Golden State Killer suspect, Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, some expressed unease on Friday at reports that detectives in California had used a public genealogy database to identify him. Privacy and ethical issues glossed over in the public’s rush to embrace DNA databases are now glaringly apparent, they said.

Police had the alleged killer’s DNA from one of his crime scenes and it was well preserved.  But they had to match it to a known person.  They did it through a popular genealogy website GEDmatch.  The detectives in the Golden State Killer case uploaded the suspect’s DNA sample. But they would have had to check a box online certifying that the DNA was their own or belonged to someone for whom they were legal guardians, or that they had “obtained authorization” to upload the sample.

The matches found in GEDmatch were to relatives of the suspect, not the suspect himself.

Since the site provides family trees, detectives also were able to look for relatives who might not have uploaded genetic data to the site themselves.

Does the End Justify the Means?

In the case of the Golden State Killer, the end resulted in the arrest of an alleged multiple murderer.  However, the means by which the arrest was obtained troubles some ethicists.  Is it ok to forego privacy rights in order to stop a serial murderer?

The founder of DNA Detectives, a group that helps adoptees find their biological parents and reunite long-lost relatives, Ms. Moore said that she has been approached numerous times by law enforcement asking her help in solving murder and rape cases.

She declined, she said, “because I was still wrestling with the ethical questions of using genealogy databases for criminals.”

Are we willing to sacrifice privacy in order to nab a killer or any criminal for that matter?

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