Property Rights of Biometric Data and the Arrest of the Golden State Killer
So what does this have to do with the arrest of retired police officer Joseph James DeAngelo Jr.? The short answer is DNA. In April 2018, Sacramento law enforcement arrested DeAngelo suspected of being the “Golden State Killer” who was connected with as many as 50 rapes and 12 murders in California between 1974 and 1986. The authorities confirmed that they had used DNA profiles from ancestry websites to help them track down the killer. Lead investigator Paul Holes said his team used the website GEDmatch, which creates genetic profiles based on voluntarily shared and publicly available genetic information. Using family trees generated through the public profiles, investigators were able to pinpoint DeAngelo as a plausible suspect.
This highlights the thorny issue that DNA information collected by these DNA testing services may be used against you or a genetic relative by law enforcement agencies. Even if you’ve never used Ancestry.com, but one of your genetic relatives has, the company may already own identifiable portions of your DNA. The Ancestry.com Terms of Service warns that genetic information in its possession can be used by state or federal law enforcement agencies to “identify you or your relatives.” Also at issue are concerns of privacy, informed consent and the long-term ramifications of having a DNA profile in law enforcement databases. In response to the news that law enforcement used GEDmatch to find DeAngelo, the website released a statement cautioning users to be aware that when they consent to release their DNA to build profiles, they can be used for this kind of dragnet. A version of this statement provided to the New York Times added, “If you are concerned about non-genealogical uses of you DNA, you should not upload your DNA to the database and/or you should remove DNA that has already been uploaded.