A controversial new method will allow detectives to find suspects based on DNA obtained from their relatives. Many family tree websites that allow you to reconstruct your families history use methods like cheek swabs to help fill in blank areas of a family tree.
Now, a report from Bloomberg revealed that detectives were able to arrest the notorious Golden State Killer in April using online genetic data. They did this by matching DNA from a crime scene to genetic material belonging to one of the killer’s relatives that had been shared on an open-source genealogy website.
Less than a month later, 55-year-old William Earl Talbott II was arrested using the same method for a double murder he is suspected of committing in 1987. This has provoked questions about the ethical nature of such data being available especially in this period where personal data is a heavily debated subject.
Genetic genealogist and television personality CeCe Moore told Bloomberg: We all want a serial killer caught. But what other applications could it be used for that maybe we would not be so in favour of?
At the moment this investigative technique seems exclusive to the United States, but as it stands there is little to no legal precedent against DNA being used as evidence. Genetic data has been misused or misinterpreted in cases in the past but it can also be used to track down suspects involved in non-murder cases.
For instance, it was used earlier this year to find the biological mother of an abandoned foetus found in Augusta, Georgia.
Yet if this is to become a regular practice in police work, experts feel that more should be done to ensure that DNA is being used in a meaningful and proper manner.
Speaking to Bloomberg, Jennifer Lynch, a senior attorney with Electronic Frontier Foundation said: Criminal court cases thus far have treated DNA data like a fingerprint. There are no meaningful protections. And we need them.
Whether innocent people who just happen to be related to a suspect should become involved in a murder investigation is something that is justifiable remains to be seen however detectives have been quick to point out how expensive and arduous this process is.
The Golden State Killer case involved searching through the data of a million people before the closest match to the killer was found in his third cousins.
Paul Holes, who worked on the case is quoted as saying: That is a huge undertaking. It took us four months of genealogy work to eventually find the two top people that fit our offender’s profile. It’s not something you’re going to do on a burglary or a petty theft. It is going to be on your major, major homicide cases because it is so manpower-intensive. It is tough, tough work.