A few years ago, when DNA testing was new, the office volunteered to pay for me and Nick O’Connor to have our DNA analysed.
The idea was we could write about the process, and what we discovered, for a biotech publication we ran at the time.
This was around five years ago, when getting your DNA tested was much more expensive and much harder to do.
I have a history of cancer and heart disease in my family. I guess most families do. So, I was faced with the question of whether I’d want to know if I was predisposed to these conditions, and by how much.
For me, though, I always think it’s best to know. So it was an easy decision to make. If I remember right, Nick had similar thoughts.
In the end, for reasons I can’t recall, the idea was shelved, and we never got the tests done.
Fast forward to today and DNA testing is everywhere. It’s even on TV. I’m sure you’ll know a few people who’ve used Ancestry or 23andMe to trace their heritage.
You can get the full test done, with ancestry results, genetic traits and predispositions for £149.
I was planning to get it done myself next month, until I received an email from Eoin Treacy.
The email linked to a Wall Street Journal article about how police had solved one of the most notorious crime sprees in recent history. The Golden State Killer.
If you’re not familiar with the case, don’t worry. I’ll give you an overview in a second.
It turns out, the police caught him by accessing databases of these DNA testing companies.
I wanted to know more about it, and what it could mean for ordinary people getting tested today. So down, down the rabbit hole I went.
Going forward, this will be an increasing issue that everyone will face. And as you’ll see, we may not even get a choice in how it all goes down. It will change fundamental aspects of police work, and in time it could rewrite entire courtroom processes.
Having read more than my fair share of dystopian sci-fi and followed many, many stories of police and state corruption, I’ve always favoured freedom over security.
But what I found has made me question my own stance on this ageless debate, and even the way I see the world.
Today, I’ll show you all that I discovered and let you decide how you feel for yourself.
Catching the Golden State Killer
The Golden State Killer is a serial killer, rapist and burglar. He committed at least 12 murders, more than 50 rapes and over 100 burglaries in California from 1974 to 1986. His victims were as young as 13.
We now know that his name is Joseph James DeAngelo. Or at least, that’s the man who is being tried in court for those crimes. And the evidence is pretty overwhelming.
I read about the details of the case on a news.com.au article published on Tuesday. And I’ll share them with you here. But be warned, they are disturbing. So I’ll section this bit off if you don’t want to read about them.
As the news.com.au article reports:
The man suspected of 12 murders and 51 rapes would sob after the attacks and mumble in a high-pitched voice like a child.
“Mommy, please help me. I’m sorry Mom. I don’t want to do this Mommy,” victims remember him whimpering.
Then there was the “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you, Bonnie,” that he wailed while lying down next to a woman he had just raped.
Some investigators have speculated the name he was uttering was Connie.
Bonne was likely his former fiancée who left him to marry a successful forensic accountant.
And Connie was his younger sister.
In the 1950s Connie and DeAngelo were playing in an abandoned warehouse on an air base in Germany when two airmen walked in and raped the then seven-year-old Connie.
When DeAngelo and his sister came home and told their parents what had happened they were told never to discuss it.
“That’s pretty crazy for a kid to see his sister be violated,” said Connie’s son Ryland, who only learned about the rape last year, before Connie died. “Maybe that was the start of Joe going wacko.”
As Buzzfeed reports:
His sister’s rape was just one notable incident in what was a tough childhood for DeAngelo, his nephew said.
DeAngelo and his three siblings grew up in an abusive household where his father physically assaulted his mother, Kathleen, said Ryland [Connie’s son]. She also abused at least one of the children.
“She would hit my mom all the time,” Ryland said, adding that his mother would at times wear two pairs of pants to lessen the blow. “I’m pretty positive they were all abused like that.”
Joseph DeAngelo Sr. served in the US Air Force and the family moved frequently because of his job. Ryland said that after one violent incident on a base in Germany, military police warned Joe Sr. he would be kicked out if he touched his wife again.
So it’s fair to say, DeAngelo had a terrible and traumatic childhood. This is unsurprisingly a common thread among violent criminals.
But as the man who eventually caught him, Paul Holes points out: there are a lot of people who are exposed to that kind of trauma and don’t become violent criminals.
A 24-year-long criminal investigation
So how exactly did Holes catch DeAngelo?
That’s where the whole thing gets controversial. Not necessarily for this case. Who wouldn’t want the Golden State Killer brought to justice? But for its effect on the future of criminal investigation.
After 24 years of dead ends, Holes decided to try a different approach. And this new approach lead to him catching the Golden State Killer just three days before his last day on the job.
Using this new method, it took Holes just four months to finger DeAngelo as his man. Comparing this to the 24 years he’d spent on traditional methods Holes said, “It underscores the power of this technology.”
“This technology” is, of course, DNA matching. But not in the traditional way police usually use it.
Instead of using the police database, Holes used GEDmatch, a public genealogy website you can use to trace your ancestry and find distant relatives.
It’s basically like a free version of 23andMe or Ancestry. In fact, you can upload your results from those sites into GEDmatch to get a wider analysis.
The fact it’s all free and public means anyone can analyse its results. So what Holes did was upload a DNA sample from a crime scene of the Golden State Killer and look for familial matches.
A familial match means that person is in the same family as the person you searched. Holes didn’t have to find a match for the sample he put in, just for someone in his family. He could then use this to inform the investigation.
From The New York Times:
To find the DNA match, investigators created a fake profile, posing as a user who was researching family history. DNA information was uploaded into a genealogy site and a match was made with a relative. Investigators eventually zeroed in on the suspect and traced the DNA to Mr. DeAngelo’s front door.
When news about how Holes tracked down DeAngelo surfaced, it created a wider public debate.
Should law enforcement have access to your DNA, even if you aren’t and never have been suspected of criminal activity?
Everyone is a suspect
When Curtis Rogers created GEDmatch, he had no idea it would one day be used to solve the Golden State Killer case.
“I never expected anything like this,” he said. “My initial reaction was I was upset. I didn’t like this use of our website.”
He says that many users have deleted their records, but that also many people have emailed to thank him. One woman wrote to say her father was a serial killer and she wanted her DNA searchable, so families of his victims could use it and get closure.
“What is the right thing to do? I’m still not sure,” he says. “I think the best thing we can do is admit what we are open and honest.”
The Atlantic reports that since the arrest of DeAngelo, DNA from more than 100 crime scenes has been uploaded to GEDmatch. It’s already led to the arrest of a man linked to a double murder in Washington State.
From that Atlantic article:
It’s hard to argue against using a genealogy site to catch a serial killer and rapist like the Golden State Killer. But what about less serious crimes, like drug offenses, asks Bettinger [a genealogist and lawyer affiliated with GEDmatch]. “I think that’s just overreach,” he says. “That makes me uncomfortable. We leave DNA everywhere we go. Everywhere we touch has DNA. There’s got to be a limit.” GEDmatch’s terms of service tries to limit law enforcement use to “violent crimes” defined as homicide or sexual assault, though the site as no way of verifying that.
But it’s not just GEDmatch that can be used by law enforcement. If you look into the terms of both 23andMe and Ancestry, you’ll see they both cooperate with law enforcement.
If you don’t like the idea of the state having access to your DNA, you can, of course, send in your results under a fake name.
I’ve seen a number of articles suggesting to do this if you don’t want to be searchable. But that would be pointless as the site would still have access to your real identity through your payment method and address.
So, is getting your DNA mapped worth it?
The argument here is the same as always. If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear people will say.
And, you can’t argue that solving a horrific case like the Golden State Killer isn’t a good thing. Why would you want to prevent something like that being solved?
Still. At least we have the choice right now as to whether we want our DNA accessible to the powers that be.
If you don’t want to be searchable, don’t send your DNA off. Right?
Well, not really. The chances are, you’ll end up in the database anyway. At least that’s the new plan in the UK.
The new UK database may make this whole debate moot – you’ll be in it whether you like it or not
Police in the UK are supposed to destroy your records if you’re found innocent. But they don’t. They make no secret of this, saying it’s too expensive to do so.
As Gizmodo revealed in April:
In 2012, a ruling by Britain’s High Court found that keeping the mugshots of innocent people in police databases was unlawful. But almost six years later, the country’s Home Office has defended the continued retention of such images, saying, basically, the problem is too expensive to fix.
So, once a suspect, always a suspect. Of course, this is for facial recognition software, not DNA data, which has been proven to be completely useless in the UK. Our system has a 98% false positive rate and has never caught a single criminal.
But there are now plans to create a centralised database, including DNA, which the police can use to investigate crimes. As the Telegraph wrote last month:
Police, immigration and passport control departments are planning a central system to upload and share DNA, fingerprint, photograph and potentially voice data so they can cross check for visa applications or while solving crimes, according to a report into the ethics and laws governing the use of biometrics.
And, of course, all those records of innocent people that were “too expensive” to destroy will be in it, too.
Where the “if you’ve nothing to hide” rhetoric breaks down
The main problem I see with all this is that it will inevitably be used for smaller and smaller crimes.
Use it to catch rapists and murderers, of course. But what about drug dealers? What about fraudsters? (as it has already been used for). What about shoplifters, graffiti artists or traffic violators?
And as DNA provides more certainty, it will inevitably lead to shorter court cases and less chance of appeal. Good, you might say, it will free up resources. But it then opens the possibility of massive manipulation.
When DNA becomes the de-facto evidence and when everyone is on the database, it would become incredibly easy to frame someone you know, or anyone you encounter.
You could use it for corporate espionage, for getting rid of a rival, for a family feud, or even for getting away with your own crime.
An adept murder could plant the DNA of someone else at the scene and upload it to the DNA database. The police would arrest the suspect, the DNA would prove their guilt and the real murder would walk around freely.
If this hasn’t already happened, there’s no doubt it will do in the coming years.
So, like I said at the beginning, I don’t know how I feel about all this.
When I first started researching this piece, I was completely against this kind of surveillance state action. But after reading the details of the Golden State Killer’s crimes, I find it impossible to say the police catching him in this was a bad thing.
Like all surveillance methods, this one will be used by the corrupt and the non-corrupt alike.
Will the payoff be worth it? I don’t know. But you can be sure it’s going to become a major issue in the coming years.
And after all this investigation, I’m still undecided about getting my DNA analysed.
Where do you stand? Were you planning to get your DNA mapped, are you still? Let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time,
Editor, Exponential Investor
Category: Genetics and Biotechnology