A relative's direct-to-consumer DNA test led police to the Golden State Killer — Now advocates have privacy concerns

A family member's mail-in DNA test led law enforcement to arrest Joseph James DeAngelo, the infamous Golden State Killer who terrorized parts of California through the 1970s and 1980s, The Sacramento Bee reports.

Mr. DeAngelo, a 72-year-old former police officer, was arrested April 24 and is expected to face charges in 12 homicide cases in Sacramento, Orange, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties related to a rape and killing spree from 1974 to 1986. Authorities said Mr. DeAngelo may have raped as many as 50 survivors when he would break into their homes and torment them.

Using genealogical websites — such as those made popular by 23andMe and Ancestry.com — which had genetic information from one of Mr. DeAngelo's relatives, investigators were able to connect DNA from one of the crime scenes collected nearly 40 years ago and compare it against a pool of genetic profiles available online.

Authorities narrowed down the list of potential suspects in the family tree to Mr. DeAngelo, who lived in the area and was in the age-range of possible suspects. They then set up surveillance in his neighborhood and collected a DNA sample from something he threw away, which identified him as the Golden State Killer.

The unusual way in which law enforcement went about determining the suspect has many calling into question consumers' privacy rights associated with investigators using the genetic information they willingly give up to genetic testing companies to learn more about their family histories.

Privacy advocates claim law enforcement's use of the DNA-collecting websites in investigations creates an "Orwellian state overreach," STAT reports, in which many consumers may not understand what they are agreeing to and, as a result, it may pose harm. What's more, privacy advocates worry that flaws in the technology could put innocent people at risk.

However, buried within the terms and conditions of many of these company's products is a note on such consent, indicating consumers are giving up their own genetic privacy, as well as that of their entire families.

Although it is not clear which direct-to-consumer genetic testing service authorities used in the Golden State Killer's case, two of the industry's leaders, 23andMe and Ancestry, confirmed they were were not involved in the investigation, according to STAT. Another two, Vitagene and MyHeritage, told CNN they also played no part.

23andMe's policy explicitly states it resists law enforcement inquiries to protect consumer privacy; however, Ancestry states it may share consumers' "personal information if we believe it is reasonably necessary to … comply with valid legal process," STAT notes. In 2017, law enforcement submitted 34 requests for non-genetic user information to Ancestry, which provided information to 31 of the requests for use in investigations into credit card misuse and identity theft, according to a company report cited by STAT.

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