May 28, 2024

Nabbing the “Golden State Killer” poses bioethics question

The Golden State Killer case was cracked using a DNA matching website.

In late April this year, California police arrested a suspect believed to be the Golden State Killer — a serial killer responsible for at least 12 murders and more than 50 rapes committed in the period 1976 to 1986. Controversially, authorities used an online gene-matching service, GEDMatch, to identify a suspect. Police uploaded a DNA sample that had been taken from one of the crime scenes and found that it matched with family members of a man named Joseph James DeAngelo, a former California police officer, now 72 years old. DeAngelo has since been charged with 12 counts of murder.

While the use of the DNA-matching website allowed for a breakthrough in the cases, there are, nevertheless, a number of ethical issues raised by it. In particular, some have questioned the secondary use of personally identifiable information (in this case, genetic information) to identify the killer. A May editorial in Nature considered some of the complexities of the matter:

Just like the Cambridge Analytica case, this one raises the question of how much control people have over information they give to public or commercial databases. DeAngelo’s relatives submitted their DNA for the specific purpose of genealogy, which by definition requires the information to be shared and compared. Then they saw it used for something else without their consent. In discussions of the case, users of genealogy services are divided between those who say the police were justified, given the seriousness of the crimes, and those who were shocked by the move…

If police can use genetic databases to catch killers — even those who are distant relatives of individuals who have submitted their DNA — then perhaps more people will sign up to share their DNA. But they should be told that this is a possibility, and be given the choice to opt out. Meanwhile, more geneticists, ethicists and lawyers need to debate other potential ways in which genetic information is likely to be used, so that ethics leads the conversation, rather than playing catch-up.

In the case of GEDMatch, users were informed that “other uses” were possible for their DNA samples and that they should remove their data if this was unacceptable.  

In a similar vein, three bioethicists argued in The Hastings Center bioethics forum:

The methods used to catch the suspect were clever, scientifically sound, and done with laudable intent: to protect the public from a man thought to be responsible for a dozen murders and at least 45 rapes. But the process used to match the DNA sample of the unknown suspect with his relatives took unfair advantage of people who had submitted DNA samples for a very different purpose. In doing so, it called into question the privacy of DNA data being collected for a wide range of purposes.

Is it ethical to catch criminals using family DNA
Xavier Symons
Creative commons
dna database