DNA Search Method that Caught Golden State Killer No Longer Available

Andrea Marks

In April 2018, California investigators finally arrested Joseph James DeAngelo – the suspected “Golden State Killer” who committed at least 50 rapes and 13 murders in the 70s and 80s. The decades-old case was solved using GEDmatch, the genealogy website that hosts a free database of users’ DNA. Now, that avenue to crime solving is no longer available. On Saturday, GEDmatch updated its terms of service to exclude all 1.2 million users’ DNA kits from being compared to those uploaded by law enforcement unless users specifically opt in.

The change comes after BuzzFeed News reported GEDmatch had made an exception to its previous terms of service to allow Utah police to compare DNA evidence recovered from a violent assault with users’ DNA profiles, when the policy said law enforcement was only allowed access for rape and murder cases. Critics raised concerns about violating users’ right to privacy and the ethics of using familial DNA in criminal investigations. “We’re right here on the precipice, sliding down,” one genealogist told BuzzFeed. “If someone has not given explicit, informed consent to have their data used in this way, their data should not be used in this way.” GEDmatch, founded in 2010, responded to these concerns by redefining the crimes for which law enforcement can upload DNA to include manslaughter, robbery and aggravated assault. The new terms also appear to shut out investigators from the vast majority of users. 

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Paul Holes, who was a prominent detective on the Golden State Killer case, predicted court battles will ensue over access to DNA. “You will start to see search warrants being written on GEDmatch,” he said. “It would not surprise me, years down the road, if this could be a U.S. Supreme Court issue.”

GEDmatch’s updated policies is the latest development in the growing debate over where to draw the line when it comes to government access to people’s genetic profiles. The popularity of ancestral DNA websites is a boon for criminal investigations. Before the break in the 40-year-old Golden State Killer case, users were uploading DNA kits to GEDmatch at a rate of 1,200 kits per day. After the highly-publicized arrest, the number jumped to 5,000. Since then, the site has been used to identify suspects in more than a dozen other violent crimes. On the other hand, a growing bank of DNA profiles that can identify almost anyone in the country through distant relatives is not something to take lightly in a post–Cambridge Analytica nation. Beyond issues of privacy and data use, ethical questions remain about whether people should get to decide if they’re going to rat out a distant relative they’ve never met, or if it’s acceptable to use DNA matching in non-violent crimes. Oversight is needed, but for now, GEDmatch has drawn its own line.

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