Golden State Killer Suspect Arrest Opens Floodgates for Law Enforcement Use of DNA Websites

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By Steve Horn, a San Diego, CA-based Research Fellow for DeSmogBlog and a freelance investigative journalist. Originally published at

The use of DNA-based genealogy websites to track down the “Golden State Killer” suspect, Joseph DeAngelo, appears to have inspired police departments nationwide. It’s a move that has irked privacy advocates and criminal justice system reformers.

DeAngelo, a former police officer and alleged serial killer in the 1970s and 1980s, was April 25 at his home in Sacramento County, California. He has been charged with murdering 12 people in California. He also is a suspect in dozens of rapes and over 100 burglaries.

Law enforcement officials stated they the open-source family DNA website GEDmatch.com, creating a genetic profile under a fake name that helped lead them to DeAngelo.

Most criminal law experts say those who hand over their DNA to websites like GEDmatch have no expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment. But whether that same legal logic applies to their extended relatives, though, will remain an open question as the Golden State Killer’s case weaves its way through the courts.

Currently, DeAngelo is being held in the Sacramento County Jail without bail. A judge may soon order law enforcement to pertaining to the circumstances that led to the arrest, according to oral arguments at a May 30 court hearing. Those may illuminate the techniques they used.

GEDmatch

To assist their search, law enforcement created an account on GEDmatch, hoping to make a familial DNA match. As first by The Mercury News, DeAngelo was eventually identified because a distant relative created a DNA profile on GEDmatch with similarities to DeAngelo’s, and investigators used that information to build family trees.

“The case sheds light on a little known fact: Even if we’ve never spit into a test tube, some of our genetic information may be public — and accessible to law enforcement. That’s because whenever one of our relatives — even distant, distant kin — submits their DNA to a public site hoping to find far-flung relations, some of our data is shared as well,” explained The Mercury News of the broader implications of the use of the DNA website by law enforcement.

Andrea Roth, a law professor at University of California-Berkeley, told The Mercury News that even if one does not create a DNA kit profile on a website like GEDmatch, one’s relative could be unwittingly handing over a trail of information to law enforcement for criminal investigatory probes akin to what happened with the Golden State Killer suspect.

“When you put your information into a database voluntarily, and law enforcement has access to it, you may be unwittingly exposing your relatives — some you know, some you don’t know — to scrutiny by law enforcement,” said Roth. “Even though they may have done nothing wrong.”

And indeed, in the aftermath of the Golden State Killer arrest, DNA databases have been tapped into on multiple instances, with law enforcement officers paying homage to the team that tracked down DeAngelo and saying, they too, may put the technique to use for future investigations. Another arrest, too, has already been made utilizing the same techniques just weeks after that of DeAngelo.

“Other Uses”

On the portion of its website, GEDmatch states openly that law enforcement has the authority to tap into its DNA repository for criminal justice investigations.

“While the results presented on this Site are intended solely for genealogical research, we are unable to guarantee that users will not find other uses, including both current and new genealogical and non-genealogical use,” reads the website, pointing to several other potential uses, including, “Familial searching by third parties such as law enforcement agencies to identify the perpetrator of a crime.”

It is that “other uses” language that allowed law enforcement to utilize the website, under the guise of doing genealogical research. And that same language, other law enforcement agents have said, could open up future opportunities to help identify criminal suspects.

For example, Vallejo Police Department Detective Terry Poyser told The Sacramento Bee on May 2 that his department is now to track down the man known as the Zodiac Killer, who committed a string of murders in northern California in the late-1960s through the late-1970s. Zodiac, whose identity remains unknown to this day, killed at least five people and perhaps as many as 28 individuals. Results of that investigation could come to fruition, Poyser said, within weeks.

Beyond Zodiac, another cold case was recently solved by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office in Washington state replicating the technique used in the Golden State Killer case.

In that case, GEDMatch was part of the corroborating evidence that gave law enforcement probable cause to arrest William Earl Talbott II on May 17. Talbott, now 55, has been charged with the first-degree murder of Tanya Van Cuylenborg, then 18, in 1987, and law enforcement is in the midst of investigating whether he also murdered her boyfriend, the then 20-year-old Jay Cook.

“He was never on any list law enforcement had, there was never a tip providing his name,” Snohomish County Sheriff’s Detective Jim Scharf said at a press conference announcing the arrest, as . “If it hadn’t been for genetic genealogy, we wouldn’t be standing here today.”

The business publication Bloomberg on May 30 that Parabon NanoLabs, a Virginia-based forensic DNA company, also has asked GEDMatch “for permission to load DNA from about 100 crime scenes” into its database, already getting about 20 genetic matches.

“We’ve been aware for a long time that this was possible, but there was a time when GEDMatch just wasn’t as large as it is,” Steve Armentrout, president of Parabon, told Bloomberg. “Now it is clear that this is going to be a very powerful tool.”

Justice Served Act

In order to obtain more money to reopen cold cases, the , , as well as the , and other organizations have begun lobbying for passage of the .

The bill—which recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives 377-1 (the lone dissenting vote being Michigan Republican and libertarian U.S. Rep. Justin Amash)—calls for in congressional appropriations grant money, by amending the DNA Analysis Backlog Elimination Act, to flow to local district attorney offices to solve cases of this nature. S.2345, the Senate companion version of the bill, already has a bipartisan battalion of .

“The Justice Served Act invests in the criminal justice process to transform these results into justice by providing funds for the prosecution of crimes cleared through DNA,” the National District Attorneys Association explained of its support for the bill in a . “The Justice Served Act of 2018 brings results to the courthouse and encourages the resolution of those cases through what is often a long and cumbersome criminal justice process.”

“We Should Be Careful”

Many have celebrated the arrests of the suspected Golden State Killer and William Earl Talbott II as case-study examples of “justice served,” to quote the namesake of the proposed congressional legislation. But the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”), in a May 11 opinion piece published by The Washington Post, cautioned readers to think about the broader implications of the situation as it relates to emboldening law-enforcement crackdowns on less-serious crimes.

“People may not be so troubled by such an intrusion when it comes to a serial killer, but imagine the implications of using this technique for shoplifters or trespassers,” .

“The lines we draw for this case may well provide a roadmap for investigations of crimes in the future. And the techniques used here are likely only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what investigators will soon have the technological power to do.”

The publication Vice Motherboard put it a bit more simply in a May 2 article, advising readers against placing their DNA on genealogy websites at all.

“As we’ve seen with so many other privacy overreaches, law enforcement uses questionable tactics on serial killers, child pornographers, and terrorists and later uses them on petty criminals,” . “I would start by suggesting that you not submit your DNA to centralized genetic databases. Open-source databases are accessible by anyone, and private ones are subject to subpoena or, possibly, hacking. In the same way that we should be careful about who we give our social security numbers or fingerprints to, we should also be careful about who we purposefully give our DNA to.”

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14 comments

  1. The Rev Kev

    Gee, I can see it now. A new TV program coming out this summer – NCIS Genealogist. To track down the criminals in this program, you would have a special team of genealogists going through old historical records, tax records, birth records, etc. and hunting down family lines. Maybe they can get a few hints from “Who do you think you are”. I can just see the high-tech data displays on computer screens as they tap the DNA databases for Ancestry, GEDMatch, MyHeritage DNA, 23andMe and National Geographic. Talk about your high drama.
    My brother got one of these tests done so it looks like they have mine as well. You get the same sort of feeling when you refuse to have anything to do with Facebook – and then realized that your family have uploaded information about you and maybe tagged you in photos. I can see the desire to have one done if you want to learn about your family history but to be honest they are not that accurate. Just read the article at
    At this point it is a forgone conclusion that law enforcement will now seek to establish a nation-wide DNA database of every citizen so that any DNA found in a crime can be cross-referenced with this database. It has not escaped my notice that roadside saliva tests by their very nature give a sample that might be able to be used for DNA purposes. Don’t be surprised if one day your DNA gets embedded into passports, driver’s licenses and the like. Gattaca, here we come

    Reply
  2. Pat

    Recently disagreed with a friend about the state’s use of DNA services to find the Golden State killer, the good of having him caught outweighed the privacy aspect for them. But something I said in passing thinking it was obvious did eventually get through. Since the state was clearly making sure your information is NOT private, there is little or nothing to really stop the services from marketing that information to employers who are currently required to provide health care. Or landlords or…

    They did an about face without even getting into the whole you have lost this even if you never opt in by getting tested yourself once they began to realize it was not just about finding serial killers.

    Reply
    1. Thomas Hilton

      Gattaca Unleashed – The Return to Eugenics.

      The movie starring Ethan Hawke foresaged the use of DNA information to literally engineer society. Well, that was SciFi in 1997. Two decades later, the technology is rapidly becoming an unstoppable fact of life. The movie storyline was that a person with imperfect genes wants to be an astronaut. Society had categorized Hawkes’ character as having genes suitable only for menial jobs. His quest was to fool the system and get into outer space.

      Of course, the dilemma, both fictional and contemporary, is pitting individual privacy rights against public safety rights. Even with rudimentary logic, it is rather straightforward to see where genetics is headed as a tool for social engineering of all kinds. Given Buchananist (neolibertarian?) forces today, it would seem that things will get worse before, and if, they ever get better. Punishing sinners is central in America’s cultural heritage; and we have the prisons to prove it. So most value-driven, binary-thinking, law-n-order Americans (trump’s base) would not see a problem there – at least until barred from college for DNA mutations (too late!). Employers, as way to cut health insurance costs (and pesky pilferers and minorities), will surely see the wisdom of examining both our resume’ and our DNA before bothering to schedule an interview.

      Maybe the DNA quandary will help put an end to binary thinking in society. For now, arguments that the rights of citizenship require proof of entitlement to those rights logically lead to eugenic state regulations. Requiring DNA is not without precedent. There was a time when racism demanded a blood test to get a marriage license in the US – under the smokescreen of preventing STDs (and in New York, Sickle cell). Washington DC, NY, and Montana still require it. Just like driving licenses, birth certificate, passports, society seems already to be at the threshold of requiring DNA when claiming any entitlements of citizenship (SPQR). That should create quite a philosophical challenge for so-called conservative libertarians who want to jail bad guys but loathe government interference in private lives.

      On the bright side (as in IQ brights), people like Stephen Hawking clearly had flawed DNA, but their contributions surely should mute calls for vocational engineering using genes. Moreover, there is a wild card in the deck – technical evolution such as CRISPR, which has the potential to repair the mutations which Hawkes’ character might have suffered from. But that also opens a new can of worms. Time will tell.

      Reply
    2. Enrique

      You’d think this was a point that was obvious on the same order as “don’t put a stupid Google surveillance device in every room of your house.” But alas not to the normies.

      Imagine I’m an employer who wants to discriminate against (insert national/regional) origin. Well we can screen out “undesirable” national origin pretty easily here and make some other excuse to never interview this candidate.

      Imagine I’m a member of the Evil Empire (ie Health Insurance company) and I want to find some subtle way to jack up someone’s rates. Oh, look, this guy’s grandpa George there died of a heart attack at 53. Let’s just tack on an extra hundred a month for this poor sap. And claim that our black box algo came up with the number some other way.

      Of course simpletons will just say “pass a law to make this illegal.” Yeah, problem solved there I guess (sarc)

      Reply
  3. allan

    “imagine the implications of using this technique for shoplifters or trespassers”

    And whistleblowers, if there is any physical evidence.

    Last year I watched as two close relatives prepared to submit their samples to a genealogy site
    and tried to get them to think about whether it was really a good idea. They looked at me like I was crazy.

    Reply
    1. Kurtismayfield

      This is one thing that we all have to get everyone to realize. As soon as it’s on the internet, or suitted to a corporate database, you might as well make the data public. I had a conversation with some colleagues yesterday about the whole Tesla updating it’s brakes through the internet.. and how if Tesla can access it any hacker can. Imagine if a hacker just told 50% of the automobiles on the US to hit the brakes. Chaos

      Reply
  4. Dean

    In the same way that we should be careful about who we give our social security numbers or fingerprints to, we should also be careful about who we purposefully give our DNA to.

    I’ve been diligent in protecting my SSN to the best of my ability. However, my ‘data’ has been compromised too many time to count (Anthem, OPM, Equifax breaches).

    It’s the organizations holding my data (and the data of my friends and family now) that I have no confidence in to protect it but at the same time every belief that they will exploit it.

    If my ramblings are convoluted that’s because I’m still trying to wrap my head around this new paradigm of big exploitable unsecured data.

    Reply
    1. ambrit

      That could be “Big Accessible Unsecured Data” or ‘BAUD.’ Then we could talk about Bauds of data per individual. It sort of fits.

      Reply
  5. ambrit

    Yet, with all of this gee whizz techno crime fighting cheerleading, not a peep about the opposite uses for this technology, ie. exoneration. Indeed, Prosecutors fight tooth and nail to stop innocent people from being liberated, even when the technology indicates that they should be.
    A massive case of hypocrisy.

    Reply
    1. David

      From the ,

      Since 1989, there have been tens of thousands of cases where prime suspects were identified and pursued – until DNA testing (prior to conviction) proved that they were wrongly accused.

      The Innocence Project counts 356 people exonerated by DNA evidence. Of the 356:

      – 40 pled guilty to crimes they did not commit.

      – 70% involved eyewitness misidentification
      – 42% of these cases were a cross-racial misidentification
      – 32% of these cases involved multiple misidentification of the same person
      – 27% of these cases involved misidentification through the use of a composite sketch
      45% involved misapplication of forensic science.
      – 29% involved false confession
      – 16% involved informants

      262 of the exonerees received compensation

      153 True suspects and/or perpetrators identified. Those actual perpetrators went on to be convicted of 150 additional violent crimes, including 80 sexual assaults, 35 murders, and 35 other violent crimes while the innocent sat behind bars for their earlier offenses.

      The races of the 356 exonerees:
      220 African Americans
      106 Caucasians
      27 Latinos
      2 Asian Americans
      1 Other

      Reply
      1. ambrit

        Agreed that the Innocence Project is a Shining Knight program. But the point is that it is a private concern. The core principle is not seen to be applied as standard operating procedure by the Criminal Justice system.
        The above mentioned ‘official’ proposal, as demonstrated by the serial killer detection pilot project, is designed to increase the systems prosecutorial reach.
        This looks too much like the old “one way street” programs that the State is so famous for.

        Reply
        1. David

          What ‘serial killer detection pilot program’ are you referring to? The Justice Served Act mentioned in the article is specifically –

          To increase the capacity of State and local prosecution offices to address the backlog of violent crime cases in which suspects have been identified through DNA evidence.

          These people have already been identified and need to be prosecuted. Why is that a not a good thing?

          Reply
  6. Norb

    All this exploitation depends a great deal on the cooperation of the exploited. The smugness of the Masters of the Universe class is breathtaking. However, a day of reckoning is inevitable. There are millions of ways this fragile system can be brought to its knees. What is amazing is that those running the show keep pushing the limits of endurance- as if gleefully seeing just how far they can go before ultimate catastrophe strikes.

    Inequality and poverty on the rise?- well too bad. Lets just keep developing the tools to exacerbate the situation.

    Opting out of TINA is the only way. Power is found in doing the opposite.

    Reply
  7. Bean Counter

    Mulling on the specific example of the Golden State Killer Cop.

    Who’s to even say that the online DNA Database is actually where the strongest evidence was acquired. Perhaps, unbeknownst to the public, cops who knew him – and those who did, most likely knew how horrid he was – finally provided the crucial clues decades later, and the DNA site was used to cover up that fact.

    Unfortunately, under the world’s major economic systems, such as US capitalism, there has always been a very, very fine line between way too many lifer cops and criminality and physical violence. I’ve come to believe that most cops who actually wanted to do the right thing – versus the way too common desire to overpower someone – live in horror of what they’ve come to realize (e.g.: NYPD Officer, Francesco Vincent Serpico, and the Films: Fort Apache, The Bronx and The Big Easy, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera).

    Surveilling the everyday figurative or literal DNA of the populace 24/7, while the worlds elites – who generally know better than to offer up their DNA, and or can pay to expunge their DNA – are responsible for 99.9999 percent of the death and misery on earth, is lethal. And that’s not even to enter into the discussion of deliberately tainted DNA, or faulty DNA results.

    Reply

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