SALT LAKE CITY – A microscopic thread of DNA evidence in a public database led California authorities to declare this spring, had caught the Golden State Killer, the rapist and murderer who had eluded authorities for decades.
Encouraged by that breakthrough, a number of private detectives are the vanguard of a call for amateur genealogists to help solve other cold cases, by a contribution to their own genetic information to the same public database. They say that a greater variety of genetic information would be an expansion of the pool to find criminals who have eluded capture.
The idea is to get people to contribute profiles compiled by commercial genealogy sites, such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe on the smaller, open-source database created in 2010, called GEDmatch. The commercial sites require authorities to obtain search warrants for the information; the public site.
But the pressure is carried out against the personal privacy.
“When these things start getting used by law enforcement, it is very important that we ensure that you get all of the benefits of that technology, we do not end up with giving up our rights,” said the American Civil Liberties Union legal colleague Vera Eidelman.
She suggests that when someone uploads their own DNA-profile is not merely adding itself to add everyone in their family, including dead family members and people who are not even born yet. They also said that DNA mining can lead to a person’s predisposition to psychological and health problems known.
“That there is a click between Ancestry and 23andMe and GEDmatch is actually a big step in terms of who has access to your information,” Eidelman said.
This month, DNA testing service, MyHeritage announced that a security breach revealed details about more than 92 million accounts. The information is not of genetic data, but still strengthened fears.
Nevertheless, the effort is gaining steam with a number of genetic genealogy experts and researchers.
The shared DNA-profiles “could end up being the key to solving one of these cold cases and the family closure and to someone really dangerous off the street,” said CeCe Moore, the head of the genetic genealogy unit in the DNA-company Parabon NanoLabs.
She uploaded her personal genetic information for the public database, and want it to become a larger repository of information for genealogy hobbyists and researchers alike. Separately, Parabon NanoLabs has uploaded DNA data of 100 unsolved crime scenes in the hope of finding suspects.
Genetic genealogy has traditionally been used to map family history. Laboratories analyze hundreds of thousands of genetic markers in the DNA, to compare with others and the linking of families on the basis of the agreements. The public database is created for comparing pedigrees and genetic profiles between the commercial web sites, which do not cross-reference information.
Its potential as a police tool was not broadly known until April arrest of Golden State Killer suspect Joseph DeAngelo in northern California. The plaintiffs claim DeAngelo, a former police officer, is responsible for at least a dozen murders and 50 rapes in the 1970s and ’80s.
But the DNA-assisted hunting, which led to his arrest was not flawless. It initially led the authorities to the wrong man which the relative shared a rare genetic marker with the crime-scene evidence. Something similar happened when the authorities of the various public DNA database to investigate a nearly two-year-old Idaho murder in 2014.
In May, Moore used in the public database to help police a 55-year-old Washington man linked to the 1987 killing of a young Canadian couple. They suspect that the method will lead to dozens of arrests in similar cold cases.
Courts have not yet fully explored the legal issues around the technique, but are likely to be let on the basis of the current law, said attorney and forensic consultant Bicka Barlow. The theory is that an individual’s right to privacy does not apply to material that they have left, regardless of whether the DNA or the recycle bin.
GEDmatch co-creator Curtis Rogers was not initially aware of the police uses its website to search for the suspect of the Golden State Killer. He is happy that it has led to solving crimes, but is concerned about privacy issues. The site policy was updated in May and says it can not guarantee how the results will be used. The users are allowed to remove their information.
A California based group of volunteers called the DNA-Do-Project has also made use of the database to identify two bodies that stumped authorities for more than a decade. The group encourages its thousands of online supporters to contribute to the public database.
“It’s free, it’s like three or four clicks and a few minutes of your time,” said co-founder Margaret Press. “It is altruistic if you have no interest in your own family history; if you did, it is a win-win.”
A volunteer group of researchers and advocates called the Utah Cold Case Coalition has a similar appeal.
The idea may be especially attractive in Utah, co-founder Jason Jensen suspects. Interest in genealogy is especially strong in the state, because the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints point out the importance of family relationships in the afterlife.
“Maybe that one person after their DNA and could potentially break a case that someone back in Nantucket (Massachusetts) is trying to solve,” Jensen said.