Golden State Killer caught using family tree sites

The Los Angeles Times have revealed multiple genealogy platforms used - secretly - to catch a killer...
24 February 2021

Interview with 

Libby Copeland, Journalist


In 2018, US police found and arrested a serial killer in a brand new way. They connected his DNA to the DNA of a relative who’d uploaded theirs online for genealogy. For many, the ends here didn’t justify the means; it felt like a serious breach of privacy. And at the end of 2020, the Los Angeles Times reported that the breach was much wider than anyone had realised. Independent journalist Libby Copeland told Phil Sansom the story...

Libby - The origins of the Golden State Killer case from two and a half years ago were not quite what we understood them to be. They involved more databases and private databases in a way that Americans and the rest of the world had not previously known.

Phil - Right, you better give me some context: who's the Golden State Killer?

Libby - His name is Joseph James DeAngelo, and during the seventies and eighties in California he went on a reign of terror, raping and murdering... obviously many, many people. He was also briefly a police officer. He was somebody who was never suspected, never implicated; and when he was arrested in 2018, what came out is that instead of using all the traditional methods that police typically use, they had actually used consumer DNA. People willingly swab or spit into a vial, they send it into a company, and they get back those pie charts and those lists of DNA relatives. And the breakthrough in the Golden State Killer was to take those techniques and to apply them to crime scene DNA that had been left behind.

Phil - Let me get this straight: this guy, and everyone else, basically thought that he'd gotten away with his mass murders for decades, until what - a relative uploaded a bit of DNA and they caught him with that?

Libby - Yeah, it was apparently somebody who was closer than a third cousin, but quite possibly somebody who didn't know him.

Phil - Is this kind of a first?

Libby - It's a big deal. When investigative genetic genealogy - which is this new crime solving technique - emerged back in 2018 it was a really big deal, but it was limited in its scope. We understood that it affected only one database: a kind of obscure hobbyist database that was publicly accessible, that was volunteer run, and that was free. So the stakes were not so high. What the Los Angeles times reporting revealed is that, in fact, three databases were involved; and in addition to GEDmatch, that free, publicly accessible site, one of them is called FamilyTreeDNA, and one of them is the third largest database for ancestral DNA. It's called MyHeritage. What's really striking about this is that MyHeritage did not know.

Phil - Aren't these databases designed to help people connect? And if so what's the big deal? The police just did something that everyone else is doing.

Libby - Right. That's a very good point. And that's been the response from a lot of people who are in support of this, and indeed from the civilian genetic genealogist who did the upload. Her argument is that this kind of use of DNA to find genetic kin is something that has been happening, at this point, for over a decade. If you think about the anonymity that sperm donors were promised, for instance: those are men who, say, back in the 1970s they contributed their sperm to help other people start families, in exchange for pay. And they were often contractually promised anonymity. And DNA has done away with that, right? It's made those contracts moot. There's no such thing as an anonymous sperm donor anymore. So her argument is: if anything, sperm donors are more entitled to privacy than, For instance, a rapist who left his DNA at the scene in the act of committing a rape. On the other side, of course, individuals have different - and less - power than law enforcement does. Law enforcement has the power to arrest. And the question is: in the context of DNA, is law enforcement entitled to go wherever the public goes?

Phil - When it comes to the police and law enforcement, it always feels like the things that we know about are the tip of the iceberg. What do you think is going on that we don't know about?

Libby - I think it is certainly possible that this has happened in other cases in addition to this. And I have heard people who are knowledgeable say that they believe that this has happened before.


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