Could this dampen the current enthusiasm for DNA-based family trees? A Californian serial killer may have been identified by genetic samples that his distant relatives gave to a genealogy website, according to the New Scientist.
While most people would be happy to help track down a serial killer, there are concerns this could be just the beginning of police using commercial genetics services to investigate other, less serious crimes.
Currently, major DNA ancestry companies – such as 23AndMe – say they generally resist police inquiries, unless they have a court order. However, customers often choose to broaden their search for long-lost branches of their family tree by uploading their raw DNA data into a free site called GEDmatch.
According to The Mercury News, investigators in California used GEDmatch to help identify the suspect they believe to be the so-called Golden State Killer.
This serial killer is thought to have committed more than 50 rapes and 12 murders across California in the 1970s and 80s. This week, investigators arrested Joseph James DeAngelo, a 72-year-old former policeman, and he has been charged with eight counts of murder.
They tracked him down by comparing samples taken from a crime scene decades ago with genetic profiles of individuals on the GEDmatch database.
The Sacramento investigators are not giving out details of how exactly they did this. It’s possible that once they had found a partial match on the database, they then used public records to identify related individuals.
According to The Sacramento Bee, the team’s suspicions were increased by the fact that DeAngelo was in the right age range, and had lived in some of the places where the attacks occurred. Before arresting him, they first covertly took a new DNA sample from an item DeAngelo had discarded, to confirm the DNA match.
A statement recently posted on the GEDmatch website states that people who are concerned about non-genealogical uses of their DNA should not upload their DNA to the database, and should remove any DNA that has already been uploaded.
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