Bad News for Serial Killers — Genetic Privacy?

It’s tough being a serial killer, really. You have to hide everything, not just from the authorities, but even you closest friends and family. You have to make sure no one at work suspects anything. You have to cover your trail and make sure not to leave one shred of evidence that might lead the relentless police back to you, ending your game forever. Well, it just got a lot tougher. Enter the story of the Golden State killer.

You see trash. I see a whole lot of DNA samples.

He was famous for the terrible deeds he performed over decades. Now, he’s behind bars, but he was not caught in a conventional fashion. It turns out that the only reason the police were finally able to get this guy off the streets and make him face at least some sort of justice was because someone in this guy’s family placed their DNA on a genealogy website, presumably they could find out more about their ancestors and where their family came from. Anyone can do this for a few bucks online these days, and millions of people all over the world have done just that. It’s big business. Well, what this family is finding out is that one of their relatives was an infamous serial killer, one of the most feared and revered of all time.

So on the surface, it’s hard to argue with success. You are not going to find a lot of folks wanting to defend this guy and we certainly are glad that he is behind bars for the rest of his miserable existence. However, it’s important to understand that what happened here is a bold new territory where privacy laws have not necessarily kept up with technology.

The authorities used this genetic database to narrow down possible suspects. Then, they used more normal investigative techniques to further cull the list. Ultimately, they stalked this guy and waited for him to put his garbage out. Apparently, once a potential DNA sample has been “abandoned” it is open season for anyone to take a look. So, once the suspect left something with his DNA anywhere where it was legally classified as “abandoned” the police could swoop in and verify what they believed to be true. In this case, they got their man and were able to quickly get a warrant to take him down.

That’s one complicated series of events, though. If someone in this guy’s family had not been curious about genetics, this man would have never been caught. So, serial killers, you gotta worry about what the fam is doing as well as the police. In any case, it ushers in some definite worries for privacy. We all know the problem with identity theft and our personal information that no one seems to be able to protect. How long before DNA is the new concern? And is that red Solo cup you drank from last night and deposited in the trash really fair game for DNA analysis?

It certainly is for now.

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