Could A New Genealogy Database Policy Make It Harder To Catch A Killer?

GEDMatch's policy change regarding law enforcement access to its database is causing controversy.

By Jill Sederstrom
Digital Original
Golden State Killer Suspect Arrested

Cracking unsolved cold cases may have just gotten harder for investigators after a popular genealogy database changed its policies over the weekend, making it harder for investigators to gain access to users’ DNA.

Investigators have used GEDmatch, a third-party genealogy database, to solve some of the country’s most baffling mysteries over the last year — including the capture of the suspected Golden State Killer in April 2018.

Investigators had been allowed to access to the site’s DNA information to investigate homicides or sexual assaults, letting them use the information to identify DNA found at crime scenes. But over the weekend, the genealogy site changed its policy to require site participants to manually “opt in” if they want law enforcement to have access to their personal data, ABC News reports. The default setting for users will be to “opt out” of sharing their data.

Curtis Rogers, co-founder of GEDmatch, told ABC News they made the decision to change the company’s terms of service in an effort to be fair to customers.

“Ethically, it’s a better option,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

However, until a significant portion of users decide to opt in to allowing law enforcement to have access to their data, the site’s use in solving violent crimes essentially comes to a halt.

CeCe Moore, chief genetic genealogist at Parabon NanoLabs — the lab responsible for using the genetic information to solve many of these types of cases — called the company’s decision a “tragedy” for victim’s families, who could have found justice for their loved ones.

“Further, it is very likely to cost lives,” she told ABC News in an email about the policy change.

Retired investigator Paul Holes, who led the team responsible for catching the suspected Golden State Killer, told BuzzFeed News the new policy change could also result in legal battles that may even make their way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“You will start to see search warrants being written on GEDmatch,” he said, adding that investigators may even begin to seek court orders to gain access to larger DNA databases such as 23andMe, which have historically not allowed investigators to access their data.

The abrupt shift in policy comes just days after BuzzFeed News published a report detailing how GEDmatch made an exception to its usual policy by allowing investigators to use the site during the search for an assailant who broke into a Mormon church in Centerville, Utah, and choked a 71-year-old woman from behind as she was playing the organ.

The company’s previous policy clearly stated that investigators could only use the site for homicide or sexual assault cases — which didn’t apply there.

Through the use of the site, investigators later arrested a 17-year-old teen for the aggravated assault — but the genealogy community voiced concerns the decision to make an exception in the case could be a slippery slope that could pave the way for investigators to begin using the third-party sites for less serious crimes.

“This is very disturbing,” Leah Larkin, a California genealogist, told BuzzFeed News. “We’re right here on the precipice, sliding down.”

Larkin spoke with the news organization again after the company’s decision to change the policy to voice her support for the move.

“As people opt in, this will become the database I’ve been advocating for,” she said.

Rogers said the case in Utah triggered the company to rethink its current policies and make the revisions, which went into effect on Sunday.

 “The Utah case, in which a 71-year old woman was beaten and left for dead, and which some people felt was an exception to our vicious crime clause, made us rethink our terms of service policy. The opt-in for law enforcement use is one result of this thinking,” he said, according to New Scientist.

Vera Eidelman, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told ABC News that, while the move to require participants to opt in was a “good and important step,” ultimately, she believes lawmakers and courts should determine how an individual’s genetic data is used.

"Our DNA is deeply personal. Unlike a fingerprint, it can reveal far more than our identity," she said. "Moreover, the information held by GEDmatch and similar companies can reveal such personal details not only about their users, but also about dozens if not hundreds of those users’ family members. The government should not be able to access that information about us without our consent."

While some have voiced support for the new policy, law enforcement officers say the move could allow killers to walk free.

"It's going to make our cases a lot harder to solve," Orlando Police Detective Michael Fields told ABC News. "It's a shame it could leave a murderer running on the streets, but I perfectly understand why they'd want to change that."

He said investigators continually have to evolve their strategies as laws and standards change. The latest decision by GEDmatch is just the latest shift, he said.

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