DNA databases are a slippery slope that could lead to unintended consequences

In Opinion
Test tubes are drying near the sink.
DNA testing helped make an arrest for the Golden State Killer, but it also reminds consumers to be wary of genetic databases because it could be used in harmful ways. (Jennifer Garcia / Daily Titan)

Last Tuesday, an arrest was made in the decades-long hunt for the Golden State Killer who’d been linked to at least 45 rapes, 12 murders and more than 120 residential burglaries between 1976 and 1986. Though the case is monumental in both the amount of time the serial killer went without conviction and the wake of people affected, a glaring detail stands out in how police found the suspect.

Joseph James DeAngelo, a 72-year-old retired police officer, was arrested on April 24 after authorities turned to an open-source genetic database, GEDmatch, and found a familial match to DNA evidence collected during the investigation.

With the rise in popularity of at-home DNA testing kits, like 23andMe and AncestryDNA, and seemingly increasing the willingness to bare all to the public, there is a lack of concern over privacy issues. Consumers need to be aware of security risks associated with adding their DNA to lists that may become available to the public.

In the case of the Golden State Killer, the public DNA database provided valuable information, but it presents an ethical problem that should lead any person considering genealogical searches to be wary of its consequences.

On one hand, the public DNA database led to the arrest of a man who had a statewide impact. On the other hand, if a family member were to upload genetic information to a database without informing the rest of their family, it might be passed around in unintended, yet-to-be-seen harmful ways.

GEDmatch states the information uploaded to the site is public because sharing information is essential to DNA and genealogical research.

While it’s hard to feel sorry for people who complain about privacy issues when the rules of participating are often clearly listed in terms of use or privacy policies, the bigger issue is that people often don’t consider or care about the long term or more widespread ramifications of participating in activities that have the potential to reveal identities.

People have already become comfortable with companies like Apple, which have access to fingerprints and facial recognition, so how long will it be until the public is OK with their DNA being on full display for state and federal officials to access?

Overall, this case provides greater context to issues of privacy in America as a whole. This investigative success comes shortly after incidents like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the Equifax data breach, putting into question companies’ ability to protect individuals’ private information.

Not only have companies failed to keep citizens’ information under control, but America has also increasingly seen rollbacks on privacy policies under the Trump administration.

At the beginning of his presidency last year, President Donald Trump signed a bill, repealing internet privacy laws put in place by the Federal Communications Committee, which allowed users to have greater control over data collected by their internet service provider.

But the question of privacy becomes even more complex when considering social media and the ever-enticing siren call of sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to “share” aspects of everyday life.

There are many features of technology that can be used against others — from GPS tracking to facial recognition — turning anyone into an off-the-grid, conspiracy-wielding hermit, but ultimately the responsibility to weigh the pros and cons of any new technological advance lies in the hands of consumers.

If people are OK with sharing their DNA publicly to find long-lost relatives, then they also have to be OK with the fact that their DNA might get them or someone related to them in trouble somewhere down the line.

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