Do I Owe It to My Criminal Relatives to Keep My Genes a Secret?

When genetic testing results become a tool for law enforcement



The police in Sacramento, California, famously used genetic matching data from the direct to consumer genealogy website GEDmatch to identify former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo, age 72, as the "Golden State Killer" who committed a series of rapes and murders in California in the 1970s and '80s. Genetic information provided to the website by some distant relatives led the police to suspect DeAngelo. The police directly connected DeAngelo to the murders and rapes by matching old crime scene DNA to his DNA obtained from a car door handle and a piece of discarded tissue paper.

Similar genetic genealogy matching has been used to identify criminal perpetrators in about 13 cold cases in the U.S. Police investigators can be expected to resort to such long range familial searches as more and more genetic information is voluntarily supplied by Americans to such open websites as GEDmatch. Is this a problem? Does this violate the privacy of Americans?

An article on identity inference of genomic data using long range familial searches recently published in Science by a team of researchers led by Columbia University bioinformatics researcher Yaniv Erlich reports that very soon it will be likely that, at least for Americans of European ancestry, genetic genealogy matching combined with easily obtainable demographic information will be able to identify almost anyone. Genetic matching of even distant relatives enables investigators to refine family trees to eventually identify specific individuals. Such genetic matching is becoming much easier as genetic databases grow. The researchers predict that "with a database size of ~3 million US individuals of European descent (2% of the adults of this population), over 99% of the people of this ethnicity would have at least a single 3rd cousin match and over 65% are expected to have at least one 2nd cousin match. With the exponential growth of consumer genomics, we posit that such database scale is foreseeable for some 3rd party websites in the near future."

As it happens, 23andMe tells me that I have 1,082 genetic relatives ranging from first to sixth cousins identified in their database.

Most legal analysts agree that police use of long range familial searches using data from nonforensic genetic databases does not violate either constitutional protections or current laws. Nevertheless, some object to police suspicionless genetic surveillance. One proposal by University of Baltimore law professor Natalie Ram and her colleagues is the adoption of a Stored Genetics Act similar to the Stored Communications Act, under which a court may order disclosure of electronic records if the government "offers specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe" that the records sought "are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation."

Ram and her colleagues observe that such an act "would likely render law enforcement searches of nonforensic genetic databases unlawful for crime-detection purposes, as there can be no 'specific and articulable' connection between particular database records and a particular crime when investigators seek to use such a search to generate leads, not investigate them. Thus, although such an approach would preserve freedom from perpetual genetic surveillance by the government, it may well result in fewer solved cases."

Setting aside concerns of how the police might use DTC genetic information, three University of Washington computer scientists outline in an article posted at arXiv various ways that criminals could misuse unprotected DTC genetic information. Specifically, they suggest that forged genetic profiles can be used by criminals to misdirect investigations, by con-artists to defraud victims, or by political operatives to blackmail opponents. For example, a criminal could manipulate genetic data to create a profile for a synthetic second cousin in a database that would point the police using long range familial searches away from the actual perpetrator.

Both Erlich and the University of Washington researchers suggest that one good way to forestall the manipulation of digitized genetic data for nefarious purposes is for the raw data files generated by DTC genetic testing companies to be digitally signed using a cryptographic key controlled by the DTC company. Profiles submitted without a valid DTC digital signature such as those of participants in genetic disease research programs would be rejected from third party databases like GEDmatch. A digital signature system would also complicate police use of long range familial genetic searches since they would have to submit crime scene samples to DTC companies in order to obtain digital signatures so that the profiles could be compared with profiles already in third party databases.

Despite his concerns, how worried is Erlich about his own genetic privacy? Not very. He, like me, has posted his genomic information online. "If you ask me, do you want to share with me your genealogy or your cellphone records or search-engine records, I will share my genealogy," he explained in an interview at The Atlantic earlier this year. "If you ask me do you want your search-engine data or data your ISP sees or your bank account versus your genome, your genome is actually quite—I don't think it's very interesting."

But as Erlich demonstrates, the rapid expansion of DTC genetic testing databases will make it increasingly hard for any of your criminal relatives to hide from the police.

In any case, it's a good idea for DTC genetic testing companies to adopt digital signatures as a way to allay concerns over identifying research participants and forestalling the misuse of genetic data by criminals and the police.

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  1. No you do not. You don’t owe them anything. No one can have a claim on the privacy of someone else.

    The problem here has nothing to do with you or any fictious duty to your criminal relatives. The problem is that the exclusionary rule is a terrible way to enforce the 4th Amendment. If you are innocent, the exclusionary rule offers you no remedy for the police violating your rights. The exclusionary rule only offers a remedy to the guilty by having the evidence of their guilt supressed in court. The police go and search your DNA without a warrent in violation of your rights and you, because you are innocent and not suspected of a crime are left without remedy.

    I believe the exclusionary rule needs to go. When the police violate someone’s rights, they should be held criminally and civilly liable for doing so. That, however, should not mean that guilty people should go free. If the person is guilty, they should be convicted. If they are convicted based on illegally seized evidence, the cops who broke the law should go to jail with them.

    1. I would change warrants considerably. Let any party to a case create their own warrant for anything, as long as it is relevant, contestable, minimal, etc. But once a warrant is executed, if it is executed poorly (exceeds its written bounds, without waiting for appeals to finish), then the warrant target gets to reverse the warrant and do the same back. If you lose the case, all your warrants rebound in similar fashion.

      Most people would probably settle for cash in lieu of re-enacting a reasonable search. But if some cop slams you to the ground and kicks you a couple of time, I think a lot of people would look forward to a little retribution. Make a mess of someone’s house, throw clothes all over, break toys, kill dogs — gonna take a lot of money to avoid retribution (most people would just take the cop’s dogs instead of shoot them). Ask your cop buddies to help you out — ask the union. See how long other cops help you beat someone up.

      The exclusionary rule is ugly and bizarre, and doesn’t come close to stopping any problem it was set up for.

      1. The worst thing about the exclusionary rule is that by making a remedy for 4th Amendment violations only avialable to the guilty, it has caused the public to see the 4th Amendment as some legalistic trick that allows guilty people to go free. It is no surprise that most of the public doesn’t care about the 4th Amendment. Why should they? Most people are not criminals. And if you are not a criminal, the cops can violate your rights with impunity. Given that fact, why should you care if the rights, which are effectively only available to the guilty, are curtailed?

        1. While I like your idea John, the problem is that a police officer who violates civil rights is also entitled to a criminal trial where they are presumed innocent beyond a reasonable doubt and can demand a jury trial.

          As it stands now, Juries dont tend to convict law enforcement officers of violent crimes like murder.

          While the exclusionary rule is not optimum, it tries to prevent parallel construction of evidence and the defendant have not recourse to police doing that.

          Police need a warrant based upon probable cause, if they want anything from you and you are unwilling to voluntarily turn it over (ideally).

    2. “The problem is that the exclusionary rule is a terrible way to enforce the 4th Amendment. ”

      No, the real problem is that a terrible and riddled with exceptions as it is, the exclusionary rule is the only way to enforce the 4th amendments.

      If the cops violate your 4A rights, but then never file charges against you, you are SOL.

    3. I like this so much better.

    4. I appreciate the “Don’t Tread on Me” psychology of some of the participants here, but why would anyone ever become a cop if an accidental or good faith violation of the rules of evidence (that are argued on a daily basis in courts across the US) could result in criminal or civil penalties.

      Are you willing to apply the same standard to your work?

  2. When that Sacramento cop was arrested, I wondered how much sooner he would have been caught if not a cop; how much evidence pointing to him was ignored by the investigating cops. Evidence seems pretty slim, judging from what little has been reported recently, so it wouldn’t have taken much to divert suspicion.

  3. So we can arrest Elizabeth Warren for the murder of George A Custer?

    1. She is only 1/1024 Indian, hence her culpability is vanishingly small. Maybe she should be branded, or her head shaven as punishment for her ancestors’ sin?

  4. >>>As it happens, 23andMe tells me that I have 1,082 genetic relatives ranging from first to sixth cousins identified in their database.

    did not knowing keep you from sleep all the days before you found out? mailing my dna is not for me

  5. I will need a better example than catching a serial killer.

    The whole point of the 4th Amendment is to prevent the government from harassing you and manufacturing charges against you.

    Using a cold case’s DNA to search a database isn’t really the same thing.

    I think we need to be very careful about the implications of a false positive, and I think that is where we need to focus our efforts. How do we prevent someone from being convicted on the basis of a false match?

    1. It sort of is. Police narrowed down the family based on the company’s DNA info.

      Then, without a warrant, sought confirming DNA from everyone in the family. Most gave it up voluntarily but the defendant did not. Police obtained the DNA sample off locations they could get access to without a warrant (door handle and tissue from trash IIRC). They should have needed a warrant.

      1. What expectation do you have in the handle of a door or a tissue you threw away?

    2. Basically, I believe they’re just using this bit of tipping them off info to then go get a warrant, and test your ACTUAL DNA against crime scene DNA. They might also search your house, etc to find more evidence and so on.

      There’s no perfect analogy, but it’s almost like if you borrowed a friends car to commit a crime, and they talked to everybody who owned that kind of car… Found out that some of those people had loaned them out, and then pieced together that you might be guilty based on that… THEN they get a warrant to actually come after you.

      Or similar, that you LOOK like one of your cousins, hence they get caught up in the investigation, and then they find out YOU look like them, then they go after you.

      It sketches me out honestly. The future is scary. But this is also the fault of people allowing their DNA to be public. The paid companies, at least thus far, say they’re not sharing info outside of their company.

  6. Wow, I had never thought of someone creating a fake genetic ID of a fake cousin of mine to help get me busted! Yet another thing to worry about…

    Now I may get a bit long-winded here but bear with me, I have another genetic-tech fear to share w/y’all…

    Generally I often sympathize with women on reproductive rights. But then women have been known to abuse men in this category, and I cannot help but sympathize with men in these cases…

    I recall a Calif. Governor (Gray Davis maybe?) saying that he sympathized with men falsely roped into paying for children who were not theirs… Accused of fatherhood via mail to the wrong address, never get the note to appear in court, and then they are “on the hook” ’cause they didn’t dispute fatherhood in time… And Gray Davis says California “cannot afford” to protect innocent non-fathers; The Children must be supported, by hook or by crook!

    1. Now then I will get gross; do not read if you are easily grossed out…

      I recall reading of women snatching a used condoms (secretly) out of the trash, to impregnate themselves with sperm from unwilling father-to-be sex partners. Ditto with semen in the mouth… Gross! No, I will NOT look for a link for you!

      Anyway, tricked fathers in such cases are held liable for child support (have been held liable in such cases).

      Nightmare vision of the future, finally: Women secretly follows rich dude (Donald Trump for example). Picks up hair follicle, hair root or whatever, with living cells, from Donald droppings after Donald combs himself, momentarily leaves his hat on the hat rack, whatever. Woman uses cloning tech to make Donald sperm from skin cells, impregnates herself, puts The Donald on the hook!

      I don’t much care of The Donald gets screwed over; he deserves it! But what about better and more innocent men?

      1. If you are a woman and can manage to get pregnent by a professional sports star, it is like winning the lottery. It is just obscene. I totally support the idea that men and women should have to support the children they create. But it is both absurd and unjust to claim that a woman who gets knocked up by a guy is entitled to an arbitrary percentage of their wealth no matter how much that money that entails. No, they should get a modest amount of money to help put a roof over the kid’s head and ensure he is fed and taken care of.

        1. That kid would also stand to inherit his dad’s athletic talent as well.

          It’s hard to muster up a lot of sympathy for professional sports stars. And no, I don’t think “teachers should be paid as much” because pro athletes are talented and work hard. They deserve every penny they make.

          But having to split 100 million dollars with your baby mama? You still have 50 million. I don’t have 50 million and I have a firm policy of never feeling sorry for anyone who has it better than I do.

          1. But having to split 100 million dollars with your baby mama? You still have 50 million. I don’t have 50 million and I have a firm policy of never feeling sorry for anyone who has it better than I do.

            You sure are worried about a baby mama who has it better than you do.

            If we’re talking about someone like Brynn Cameron, Ye Lei, or Giselle Bundchen, someone who’s talent and/or earning potential approached or surpassed their husband’s I agree. But if you’re Mrs. Tim Duncan, who graduated with a college degree and went to work running the Tim Duncan Foundation, I think you get to keep your salary… maybe.

          2. “I don’t have 50 million and I have a firm policy of never feeling sorry for anyone who has it better than I do…and any resulting fucking they receive at the threateningly armed hands of the state is A-okay with me.” FinishedTFY
            That must include anyone with more than a 2″ dick.

            My firm policy is not to feel sorry for contemptible persons except when there is illegitimate victimization suffered at the hands of the state.

        2. Totally. There should be caps on requirements for child support. And they should be pretty damn modest. Most decent fathers who make bank would STILL be willing to throw down over and above that for things that ACTUALLY benefited their kids… But probably not so that their slut ex-wife that divorced them can buy a new Bentley every couple years.

      2. An appeals court said a man can press a claim for emotional distress after learning a former lover had used his sperm to have a baby. But he can’t claim theft, the ruling said, because the sperm were hers to keep.
        The ruling Wednesday by the Illinois Appellate Court sends Dr. Richard O. Phillips’ distress case back to trial court.


        “She asserts that when plaintiff ‘delivered’ his sperm, it was a gift ? an absolute and irrevocable transfer of title to property from a donor to a donee,” the decision said. “There was no agreement that the original deposit would be returned upon request.”

        1. Mouse pups with same-sex parents born in China using stem cells and gene editing


          Just in case anyone thinks my above-painted-scenario is “way out there” far-distant sci-fi… The science geeks are pulling off some stuff these days that will make our heads spin!

          1. I’ll believe the research coming out of China on the issue when it’s reproduced on this side of the pond.

            Not that I don’t believe it can’t be done but, it wouldn’t be the first time a scientist claimed a technical first on a nuance that bore little-to-no actual scientific or engineering fruit and after Hwang Woo-suk and Iran announcing a cure for AIDS (and soon possibly Elon Musk) I’m pretty sure we’re well into the political science celebrity era even for some of the more ‘hard’ sciences.

            1. Keep an eye on that mouse experiment grad student.

              You never know.

              Sometimes it works.

              Try again.

            2. Some people do talk shit… But the Chinese are probably going to be breaking a TON of ground on the genetics front, mainly because the western world is retarded and squeamish about a lot of the very most interesting and important stuff that could be done.

              All I know, is I want somebody to genetically engineer a dog that lives for like 80 years. That would probably be the greatest achievement possible in genetic research. A lifetime dog would be a truly amazing thing. They’re already better than most people, it’s just the heart break that comes from them dying every dozen or so years that ruins the whole thing.

              1. “But the Chinese are probably going to be breaking a TON of ground on the genetics front, mainly because the western world is retarded and squeamish …”

                Dr. Mengele agrees with you. Perhaps it would be better that you just have a shorter life span on par with your dog.

                1. There are obviously some things that would be beyond the pale… Think trying to create chimpanzee human hybrids to be used as slaves for humans!

                  That’d be fucked.

                  But there are other things that should be mildly controversial, but should really be allowed. All the hoopla about doing embryonic stem cell experiments for instance. It’s not like anybody was making babies just to kill them for their stem cells. Those abortions unfortunately were already done deals. It just became a question of if they would be put to use at all, or thrown out with the garbage.

        2. While I don’t fully disagree with the rationale (as dumb as it might be) we still run into the problem where the woman has choices and the man is held to be responsible. If sexual consent can be withdrawn after the fact by women, can a man not do the same or simply withdraw consent to his genetic material (which would then be theft of what was a gift.)

        3. That is a HILARIOUS ruling! Maybe I should start making women sign paperwork that says I retain ownership of my sperm, and can demand return upon request!

          1. Do not forget the “No orifice transfer clause.” Boris Becker paid mightily for an under bar table blow job.

      3. The joke would be on that woman. You can’t clone polyester.

        1. How about Naugahyde? Can I clone a Nauga from that?

      4. The insanity that in many states fathers are NOT ALLOWED to get DNA testing done to prove they’re the father is insane. You should have a right to do that, even if you’re in a marriage, because women cheat too. Let alone if it’s some slut you banged, who then claims you’re the baby daddy because you make the most money out of the 10 guys she slept with that month.

        The fact that even after PROVING you’re not the father you’re STILL not allowed to be removed from responsibility is simply criminal. No human being should be put through that shit. Your wife/girlfriend cheats on you, lies to you, you prove they’re lying, and you’re still on the hook??? Oh hell no.

        That is the kind of horribly unfair shit feminists are ALL ABOUT too. Because they don’t want fairness, they want supremacy.

        I have said it before, and I’ll say it again… No matter how positive I am that I am the father of the children I will someday have, I am going to illegally submit their DNA to a commercial testing service, if I can’t get one done on the up and up, just to make sure. The percentage of kids not fathered by who they think they were has come up SHOCKINGLY high in some studies. I will not be a chump. Even if it’s not legally actionable, you can ruin the womans life by making sure EVERYBODY knows she is a lying, cheating whore, who is fucking you on purpose.

        1. Yeah, never too soon to get your kids’ DNA in a database. May I suggest a chastity belt instead.

          1. Maybe. For now the commercial companies are keeping it all private. I bet one could find a smaller private lab to do it too, since costs have come down so much there is infinitely more DNA sequencing gear floating around. By the time I have kids you might be able to buy a $249 home DNA sequencer FFS with how fast the technology is coming down in price.

            My point was merely that it would suck to end up being a literal cuck. Given that the cost is so low nowadays, it should almost just be a standard procedure. It’s a rounding error compared to the costs of giving birth at a hospital anyway. The main reason it isn’t is because women have got laws passed that screw fathers because they don’t want all the cases of somebody else being the baby daddy to be caught.

      5. As for your crazy scenario… It could totally happen. The future is crazy stuff man, CRAZY!

    2. This is definitely a worrying aspect. I don’t have a problem with police using publicly available data to narrow their search results for a suspect. In all honesty, I figured that we would already have a DNA sample taken and stored in government records at birth. Where I take issue is if it was made illegal for these geneology companies to keep the data private and/or delete the genetic sequencing data after evaluation. The concern about this being just another tool for police to forge evidence against someone for conviction or to obtain a warrant is worrying. I’m not upset about giving our legal system the tools to serve justice, but we always need to remain vigilant of how the corrupt may use them

      1. Supposedly there was a large, and possibly illegal, collection of DNA that happened in large swathes of the USA back in the day… In the 1990s or something? I can’t recall. But thus far it has not been universal, and not legally authorized. But lord knows they will try to pass such a bill someday, control freaks that they are.

        Also, as of now the private companies can keep everything private. But they will likely try to step in with that too, because of The Children! Or something.

  7. Why is Michael Jackson collecting DNA samples?

    1. I think that it’s probably for the same reason that Beethoven is decomposing!

  8. “do you want to share with me your genealogy or your cellphone records or search-engine records”

    It depends on what the warrant requires.

  9. In theory, and probably more than theory, if the government has your DNA profile, the government can create fake DNA evidence in order to frame you.

    So it isn’t about your obligation to criminal relatives, it’s about your obligations to yourself.

  10. As of now, it’s just people that are dumb enough to make their data public. All the commercial companies claim to not release this data to anybody outside their company, and allow you to opt in/out to them trying to find relatives in their database etc.

    So that’s not TOO horrible for now. Other than for your bank robber cousin.

    But you know they’re going to try to get some BS law passed that makes it easy for them to subpoena this stuff.

    As for me personally, I already got violated by the cops, and they have my DNA anyway. They swabbed my ass when I got busted for under age friggin’ drinking when I was a teenager. LAME. So I’m already fucked. But if that hadn’t happened, I would be very hesitant to get the commercial DNA tests done just on principle.

    1. “They swabbed my ass when I got busted …..So I’m already fucked.”

      I take it the “swabbing” was done without a Q-tip. Well, if you commit a crime at least you know what you need to do to clean it up.

      The proliferation of identified DNA samples contained in data bases could lead to a reasonably foreseeable increase in deaths, fires and acid baths as a counter-measure.

      1. I think it actually was a long q-tip type thing IIRC. It’s been a long time.

        But yeah, I guess if I ever commit any massive crime where my DNA will prove my guilt I’ll have to burn that puppy down! Measures and counter measures man. Nobody bothered to wear gloves in 1700 when committing a crime, but they became standard fare once finger print reading became a thing.

  11. Damn, now my relatives sending in their DNA can get me pinched! They have been asking me to send mine in like its a game and I refuse. I haven’t done anything but you never know when shit might go wrong lol. No need to put yourself in a database beforehand! What does it matter where you are from you are who you are and knowing that means diddly shit. Cops knowing is another matter all together. Congrats you are .003% Inuit and you’re under arrest.

  12. Why would anyone use their real name when using these DNA search companies? I haven’t used mt real name on the internet ever.

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  14. Yeah, never too soon to get your kids’ DNA in a database. May I suggest a chastity belt instead.

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