In recent weeks I’ve been reading articles about the capture of the “Golden State Killer.” The killer eluded the police for decades. He was finally identified after a detective uploaded the killer’s DNA onto a genealogy website to locate him through distant relations. This has raised some concerns.
Many people seem to be of the opinion that if the information was used for “good,” i.e., to capture a serial rapist/murdered, then what’s the harm. I even heard some people say they were okay with having their DNA used to help catch relatives (near or distant) that had committed crimes, whether they consented to their information being used that way or not.
On the other side information should only be used for the reason/purpose it was gathered initially, unless consent is granted. Therefore if information was uploaded on genealogy websites to find relatives, then that information shouldn’t be re-purposed for other uses without consent.
Last week I heard an interview on The Daily, (a New York Times news podcast) with the detective who worked on the case for over 20 years. According to him, he created an undercover account on the genealogy website, not a fake one. He argued that being “outed” by a relative’s uploaded DNA was the equivalent of a relative calling a hotline to report you.
While we might cheer at these new methods that removed one more dangerous criminal off the streets, it diminishes the value of our privacy and our right to protect/control personal information.
What happens when this kind of information isn’t used for “good”? Or when we disagree about what “good” means. What if one day somebody in power decides to eradicate a specific gene from the human species and starts researching potential targets through DNA and genealogy websites. What if your voluntary DNA contributions help locate relatives that are carriers of this specific gene and they end up being targeted? Would you still think this was an appropriate use of your information? Likely not, but the point is you can’t always predict how/where your information is going to be used once it’s “out there.” Where’s the consent?
The detective made a good point that we need to have discussions about how/when these databanks of information can be accessed, by whom, and for what purpose. However, these discussions should happen before information is re-purposed, especially if it’s a gray area.