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The Golden State Killer, who terrified Californians in the 1970s and '80s, is in custody. Prosecutors used DNA to track down and arrest the man who they say was a serial rapist and killer. Now we've learned that investigators used an online genealogical website that people use to trace their family histories. From Sacramento, Capital Public Radio's Adhiti Bandlamudi reports.
ADHITI BANDLAMUDI, BYLINE: When prosecutors announced this week they had caught the alleged Golden State Killer, they said they had finally tracked him down after collecting DNA from something that was discarded. Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones explained.
SCOTT JONES: We did a lot of exclusions of other folks, got this person that looked like he might be our guy and then were able to get a more workable sample of DNA.
BANDLAMUDI: They then made a match with DNA collected years ago from crime scenes throughout California where the suspect, Joseph James DeAngelo, allegedly committed 12 homicides, more than 45 rapes and more than 100 burglaries between 1976 and 1986. What they didn't initially reveal is how they first pinpointed DeAngelo as a suspect - turns out that was by accessing an online genealogy database. It was an innovative technique for a crime investigation. But since many people upload their own DNA to sites like ancestry.com or 23andMe to find distant cousins or sometimes even estranged parents. So that raised questions about the privacy of those sites and how much access law enforcement has to their own genetic information for use as evidence.
ANDREW MCLAUGHLIN: And so the policy implications of that I think are not clear. Is that a good thing? Is that a bad thing? Should we all just assume that at some point through other family members we're effectively going to be exposed to the world through our DNA, or do we want to have tighter privacy protections?
BANDLAMUDI: That's Andrew McLaughlin. He's an online privacy expert and the executive director of the Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale University. He questioned whether the legal ramifications for using DNA like this have been studied enough. Today, a genealogy site called GEDmatch said that it had been told its database had been used to identify the suspect. It's a free, open-source site based in Florida where users can upload their profiles from other sites like 23andMe. But unlike those other sites, GEDmatch is different in that the uploaded information is shared publicly.
In its statement, GEDmatch warned its users, quote, "although we were not approached by law enforcement or anyone else about the case or about the DNA, it has always been GEDmatch's policy to inform users that the database could be used for other uses." The company said any user who doesn't want their data used for non-genealogical uses should remove it from the site or not upload it in the first place. Big commercial sites quickly released statements reassuring users that their data is never shared publicly and that they had never been approached by authorities regarding the Golden State Killer. They said it's not their policy to release their customers' data to law enforcement agencies unless they get a court order. An investigator on the case, Paul Holes, told San Jose Mercury News that GEDmatch offered police a large pool of profiles and didn't require a court order.
But proponents of using DNA to help solve crimes are concerned that consumers will now think twice before using the sites. Margaret Press is the co-founder of the DNA Doe Project, an organization that uses DNA evidence to locate missing persons. She says the Doe Project specifically chose to stay away from criminal investigations.
MARGARET PRESS: For us, it was a very definite decision to not involve ourselves in areas where there are still legal and ethical issues that have not been worked out in the courts or in the public discourse.
BANDLAMUDI: What's tricky about this case is that DeAngelo didn't upload his own information into a genealogy database, but one of his relatives could have, and that's what would have led investigators back to him. McLaughlin from Yale says this has real implications for the way we think about our data.
MCLAUGHLIN: It sort of shows you how maybe a long-lost child or something like that could find you in a way that you would not want to be found despite the fact that you haven't opted into that service at all.
BANDLAMUDI: DeAngelo was arraigned today on the first of what will be multiple murder charges. He didn't enter a plea. He'll be in court again next month. For NPR News, I'm Adhiti Bandlamudi in Sacramento. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.