- - Tuesday, May 1, 2018


Genetic science has dramatically expanded the methods of bringing criminals to justice, but not every measurement is meant for prying eyes, and the dive into the gene pool can turn the lights on the good, the bad, the ugly and everyone in between. But there are costs.

Cries of “bravo!” sounded when dogged police work and cutting-edge technology led to the arrest of the so-called “Golden State Killer” last week in California. Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, thought to be responsible for the murder of 12 persons and the rape of 50 women in the Sacramento area between 1974 and 1986, put the look of total shock on many faces. Investigators used GEDMatch, a publicly accessible database for genealogists, to identify similarities between the DNA left at scene of the crime and genetic profiles that distant relatives of the suspect had posted on the website. Then cops obtained a match.

California now wants to expand the collection of DNA in pursuit of solving other crimes. The Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act of 2018 would, among other things, require persons convicted of felonies and certain misdemeanors to submit DNA samples for inclusion in a state database. Proponents are trying to collect 500,000 signatures to put the initiative on the ballot in November.

A triumph of science that dispenses justice long delayed is worthy of praise, but there are footnotes to the story worth pondering. Americans are fascinated with the power to trace their genealogical roots with the help of genetic testing kits, such as those offered by AncestryDNA and 23andMe. Some choose to put their results online in search of long-lost family. Many have no doubt never considered the prospect that detectives could be combing through their profiles in search of fugitives from the law. The innocent have nothing to hide, of course, and most probably won’t blame either themselves or the cops if their DNA helps find a black sheep of the family who is living with a dirty secret.

Many, however, who tested their genome for purely personal amusement and edification expect privacy policies to protect them from unwanted scrutiny of their DNA, as it will almost certainly will be scrutinized. For example, 23andMe’s transparency report declares that “We will not release your individual-level personal information to any third party without asking for and receiving your explicit consent to do so, unless required by law.”

Such policies are only as reliable as the flawed human beings entrusted to administer them. In the 1990s, systemic forensic fraud uncovered in the FBI crime lab’s analysis of hair samples on file triggered a review a decade later of 3,000 cases. Errors were detected in 33 of 35 cases in which a defendant received the death penalty, according to the National Whistleblower and Legal Defense and Education Fund. As of 2017, nine of those persons had been executed. Personal information in devious hands is a dangerous weapon.

There are laws already on the books to protect Americans from the abuse of secrets contained in their DNA. The Genetic Information and Non-Discrimination Act of 2008 prohibits health-insurance companies to deny coverage or charging more to a healthy person who discovers his genetic predisposition to disease. The law bars employers from using genetic information in hiring, promoting or firing.

When sensitive genetic data lands in the public domain, whether from the needs of law enforcement or simply the curiosity of family history hunters, it’s likely that private data won’t stay private for long. No institution would seem to be as secure as the White House, but you could ask Donald Trump how the safeguarding of his privacy within White House walls has worked out for him.

The work of hackers adds to the likelihood of exposure. Who among us has not received a letter from a lender saying that his credit-card information has been stolen and a replacement card is in the mail. It would be naive to assume that genetic data, replete with valuable health condition markers, won’t be swept up and sold to companies seeking to sell such information.

Tracking down the evil among us is a legitimate use of genetic information, but Californians and others across the nation should be cautious before they jump head-first into the expanding gene pool. All they have to lose are the most intimate family secrets.

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