Privacy concerns don’t stop people from putting their DNA on the internet to help solve crimes

Americans are embracing the use of DNA databases to solve crimes.

Over the past year DNA submitted to ancestry websites have helped police in the United States identify the killers in several unsolved crimes, including the Golden State Killer case – a longtime subject of internet sleuthing.

The practice has raised some concerns about police access to the genetic profiles of millions of Americans, with some privacy advocates demanding that courts prohibit this investigative tactic.

But those offered the chance to participate actively in the drama of criminal justice often find privacy to be of little concern, my research shows.

People love a good cold case

California police used the genealogy website GEDmatch to check DNA from dozens of murders and rapes committed by the Golden State Killer from 1976 to 1986, leading to the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo in April 2018.

DNA submissions to GEDmatch – a public source of user-submitted DNA profiles created to help genealogy hobbyists investigate their family trees – have steadily increased since, according to founder Curtis Rogers.

About a thousand new profiles are uploaded to GEDmatch every day, Rogers says. The site contains over 1.2 million user-submitted DNA kits.

Joseph James DeAngelo, alleged to be the Golden State Killer, was identified decades after his 10-year crime spree by DNA uploaded to GEDmatch by a distant relative. AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
All users who opt in to its public portal are alerted that their DNA information may be searched by law enforcement agencies investigating a crime or seeking to identify a deceased person.

In Rogers’ experience, that possibility excites, rather than concerns, many customers. He routinely receives emails from people who want to post their DNA profile to GEDmatch “so they can assist in catching criminals, including those who might be family members, so that any unsolved cases can be solved, and families involved can get closure.”

CeCe Moore – perhaps the best known scientist in the burgeoning field of genetic genealogy – sees similar sentiments on the popular Facebook page where she posts updates on recently solved cases.

“They want to be part of solving this,” she told me, “They are web sleuths – and perhaps their DNA could be key to cracking a case.”

Moore works with Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company that builds the family tree of DNA found at a crime scene to help police identify suspects.

“People ask us all the time, how can I get my DNA to a place where you guys can solve cases?” Parabon CEO Steve Armentrout told me.

The ethics of public DNA

Home DNA kits are only the latest technology to dramatically increase public participation in monitoring, preventing and even solving crimes.

Websites like NextDoor have taken the neighborhood watch concept – when neighbors work together to prevent crime – online. The app Citizen alerts civilians about 911 calls to crimes underway in their vicinity and allows them to upload video of the incident. And over 700,000 people frequent the cold case discussions on Reddit, an online message board.

Amateur sleuths may jump at the chance of their DNA helping to catch a killer, but there are good reasons to pause and take stock of the ethical concerns raised by this practice.