Community Safety v. Personal Privacy: Tracing the Golden State Killer’s DNA

by: The Knowledge Group

May 08, 2018


Millions of people have sent their DNA for testing to learn about their health history, or to find lost relatives. Certainly they do not expect the database to be combed through by the police.

But investigators scoured Florida-based GEDmatch and found an unusual trait in one of its users, an Oregon resident. A trait held in common with a suspect they’ve long wanted to find: the Golden State Killer.

In the 70s and 80s, the Golden State Killer terrorized the Sacramento suburbs with murders, rapes, and break-ins.

The Oregonian GEDmatch user was cleared of suspicion, but investigators had pinpointed the family tree.

Cold-case specialists found similar DNA in the garbage outside the home of the current suspect, James DeAngelo.

Does a DNA Testing Company Own Your DNA After You Submit It?

DNA would seem to belong to its original owner if anything does. Surely it is property of the most personal nature. This public conversation is robust on social media. (Hashtag: #OwnYourData.)

Just 10% of the ancestry firms destroy original saliva samples they receive from clients. Most keep or sell it. Who would want your saliva? Follow the money to drug R&D, or pharmaceutical companies looking for ways to find matches for their treatments.

While AncestryDNA says it requests users’ consent before transferring information, access to the free database on GEDmatch requires neither court order nor user consent. Users should know their data may be used “for other uses, as set forth in the site policy,” insists GEDmatch.

Not even GEDmatch co-founder Curtis Rogers knew that police were digging through the company’s data, which reveals intimate information about its users’ health records and family relationships.

DNA Testing Businesses: Loss of Public Trust?

So far, the testing kit industry is growing, with startups energized by the potential of DNA marketplaces.

But greater regulatory oversight in the future is likely. The position of the FBI is that unauthorized disclosure of information from the National DNA database is a crime, subject to a fine of up to $250,000.

It’s a cultural dilemma as well as a legal one. Finding a serial rapist and killer is clearly a massive benefit to a community.  Yet the commodification of DNA brings new public risks.

Here at The Knowledge Group we have a webcast discussing how to identify and handle sensitive data with our speaker from IBM, reviewing the likes of protected health information and personally identifiable information.  It’s free to attend and a recording is available if you cannot attend, click here for more information. This webcast is also eligible for Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credits and we look forward to seeing you there.