Privacy is Dead: Why Share DNA

By John Miller, President of the Association of Criminalists, Dept. of Justice

***Editor’s Note: The following article is one viewpoint on DNA privacy. On June 22, another viewpoint was published in the article “Pandora’s Box: Why We Should Keep the Lid on Our DNA.

DNA analysis is the greatest advancement in identifying criminals since the advent of fingerprint analysis. Now, in addition to the law enforcement DNA databases, we also have public genealogy databases characterizing genetic profiles for the average citizen. Those citizens have the option of making their profile available to others for the purpose of establishing kinship. It’s a wonderful tool for those seeking long lost relatives. It’s also a wonderful tool for law enforcement to identify perpetrators who have managed to elude justice simply because they have never been arrested and sampled for a criminal database.

Public databases (Ancestry.com, 23andMe, etc.) allow you to check your DNA against other members of the database you’ve joined, and GEDmatch allows you to search profiles from other companies that have been voluntarily uploaded to GEDmatch. You control who can see your data and how widely you cast your genetic net.

Currently, several states allow familial matching, a process where one can identify unknown perpetrators by searching criminal databases for possible relatives. Once the relative has been confirmed as someone with close genetic ties to the unknown perpetrator, law enforcement can then investigate further. There are very strict rules about the use of familial searches. Why? Because law enforcement databases are involuntary databases, collected by government mandate. Anytime the government compels information from an individual, there must be safeguards against government abuse. Public databases, though, are entirely voluntary, and they are freely searchable by anyone who pays the company. No one is forced to participate. Why should a police officer be restricted from doing something the average person can do tonight on their laptop, if they wish? Some opposed to the use of these sites by law enforcement claim they’re making unwitting informers of the relatives of heinous criminals. This begs the question, why would you want to protect a serial killer or serial rapist, even if they’re related to you? And the ultimate safeguard against wrongful prosecution is built in: a person’s DNA must match the perpetrator’s DNA, or they’re ruled out.

If not for public databases, the Golden State Killer would still be free, and we wouldn’t know the identity of the Chameleon Killer, another insidious serial killer, nor would the Buckskin Girl in Ohio be identified. Law enforcement databases have already solved many old and cold homicides, providing justice for victims’ families. Private genealogical databases have the potential to do the same. Make new rules, if necessary, that protect legitimate privacy concerns, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let law enforcement catch these kinds of criminals by accessing public genealogical information.

Although not as well-known as their fictional counterparts on television, the more than 200 criminalists for the California Department of Justice are the real-life crime scene investigators (CSI) who provide prosecutors with that missing link between victim and perpetrator. The son of an Air Force jet mechanic, Mr. Miller was born on a military base in Japan, but grew up in Modesto where his family eventually settled. He graduated from Sacramento State University with a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry and has received additional training at DOJ’s California Criminalistics Institute in Sacramento.