How California police used DNA in cold case raises privacy concerns

Dr. Art Caplan discusses how DNA was used to arrest cold case suspect

WASHINGTON — Tuesday’s arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, whom authorities believe is “The Golden State Killer” and “East Area Rapist,” marked the end of a case that had baffled California investigators for decades.

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The 72-year-old retiree is suspected of at least 12 murders and 50 rapes throughout California.

Authorities say the break — which occurred less than two months after the publication of a best seller on the case — was due in part to advanced DNA technology.

The lead investigator told the San Jose Mercury News that his team relied mostly on GEDMatch, a database that pools DNA profiles that people upload and share publicly. (Such profiles can be obtained through services such as 23andMe and Ancestry.) Crime scene DNA was linked to a distant relative’s online, which led them to DeAngelo.

With a growing number of people sharing this detailed, easily accessible information, it raises some very 2018 concerns — of privacy, of the ethical use of data and the like.

“There are dangers there,” said Dr. Art Caplan, the head of medical ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center. “One obvious one is the databases themselves are not really secure from third-party examination.”

Caplan told WTOP’s Debra Feinstein and Mark Lewis that while it shouldn’t be impossible for authorities to apprehend a criminal in this manner, it’s important for the public to be aware of the privacy implications from sharing DNA information publicly.

He contrasted it to the level of judicial clearance that federal investigators needed to get documents from President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen.

“We don’t have that for the databases,” Caplan said. “Right now, it’s up to the company to sort of say, ‘Well, if the FBI wants to get in here … we’ll fight it or we’ll resist it.’ But that isn’t the right way to go.”

Another fear is reminiscent of the recent controversies surrounding Facebook: the potential for third parties to profit off one’s intimate information.

The testing companies themselves, he said, could be more clear about those test kits that are lightheartedly advertised. It might be fun to find out that one is 32 percent Portuguese, for instance, but one should know that the testing kit’s real cost exceeds the price tag.

Legal safeguards, he said, are also needed.

“I think we need some congressional action,” Caplan said. “We even need a little international action to say: ‘Here’s the steps under which a third party could enter a database. This is what you have to do legally. This is who you have to get permission from.'”

Jack Pointer

Jack contributes to WTOP.com when he's not working as the afternoon/evening radio writer.

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