Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last week, you’ve no doubt heard that the Golden State Killer, aka East Area Rapist, guilty of at least twelve murders and fifty-one rapes in the 1970s and 80s, was recently captured using a DNA match found through a genealogy site. That site is GEDMatch.com. My DNA sequence has been uploaded to that site. Since that time I’ve seen several news story about people having, or needing, increased awareness/concern about their privacy on DNA sites. Spokespeople for other sites like 23andMe and Ancestry.com have appeared on news shows to emphasize that they do not share DNA information with law enforcement without compulsory legal process, i.e. subpoena or court order.
I don’t get it. Why the concern for privacy and why this policy? Are there really people out there who don’t want serial killers and rapists caught? The serial rapist/killers themselves, I suppose. But are you really concerned that police might catch your fourth cousin twice removed that you’ve never heard of because they linked a killer’s DNA to yours? I’d be thrilled if my DNA led to catching another Golden State Killer even if it turned out to be a close relative. Some people may think they could wrongly be suspected based on a DNA “hit” but that’s simply wrong. A DNA test can positively confirm or eliminate a match. At the very least, the users of such sites should have the option of checking a box that allows law enforcement access to their DNA without legal process. What kind of person (expletive deleted) wouldn’t opt in to that? I think this case could lead to a huge increase in clearing such cold cases, or even some quite hot cases. Lives could be saved. Rapes could be prevented.
Some people might say, well, then, all the cops have to do is get a subpoena or court order. That shows a woeful ignorance of the law. To get either you need one of two things: a grand jury convened for your case (only available for a major active case) or a search warrant, which requires probable cause. Probable cause requires that you have good reason to believe the DNA in a company’s data base contains useful evidence in a specific case. That’s almost never the case; that is, you can’t prove to a judge in advance that it’s likely a DNA match will be found. The simple fact is that in most criminal cases, especially cold cases, subpoenas and warrants or other forms of court order are simply not available to investigators. I’ve had a few people challenge me on this and find it hard to believe, but, unlike me, they weren’t lawyers or experienced criminal investigators. Take my word for it. It’s true.
What the police did here, though, doesn’t require probable cause or any legal process. No one’s rights have been violated. The DNA matching came from two sources: the victims (either given voluntarily in rape cases or taken from the deceased’s body in the murders) and the accused’s used paper cup that he threw away. There is no privacy right in trash you throw away in a public place like a mall. The way the police identified him, i.e. by using GEDMatch, is irrelevant legally. The whole point of that website is for people to put their DNA out for public comparison. Even if their rights were violated, which they weren’t, the defendant wouldn’t have standing to contest that. If the police conduct an illegal search of your house and find evidence incriminating me, I can’t object. They can use it against me; they just can’t use it against you. This is another concept the general public often doesn’t understand.
Anne Wojcicki (CEO of 23andMe), your pro-rapist, anti-police policy is reprehensible. Not only are you protecting rapists and killers, but you are hindering the freeing of wrongly convicted prisoners by your policy. Shame on you!
Following is the recent notice on the home page of GEDMatch.com:
April 27, 2018 We understand that the GEDmatch database was used to help identify the Golden State Killer. Although we were not approached by law enforcement or anyone else about this case or about the DNA, 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 ( linked to the login page and https://www.gedmatch.com/policy.php). 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. 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.