Technology is a double-edged sword. While the power of online databases and software that connects populations can bring people closer together and educate them about their health and history, technology is ultimately a reflection of its users and everything human about them: The good, the bad and the corrupt. This principle applies to genetic databases such as 23andMe, Ancestry.com and GEDmatch, which store the DNA of everyday citizens in order to identify health risks or trace genealogies. While these databases are not intended to be used for forensic purposes, police have recently utilized their information to crack certain cases that once appeared unsolvable, raising ethical and privacy concerns.
For example, on April 24, police in California arrested Joseph James DeAngelo, who committed at least 12 murders and dozens of rapes that earned him the nickname the “Golden State Killer”. The case had lasted for over 40 years and was ultimately solved by comparing DNA found at crime scenes to records from DeAngelo’s family members that were posted on GEDmatch. This was not the first scenario in which police used DNA databases unintended for forensic purposes. Previously, police have limited their searches to forensic database systems such as the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which contain DNA records only for convicted criminals or suspected leads. However, these recent cases have involved police searching for leads amongst the general population rather than following them for a suspect, demonstrating a severe breach of citizens’ privacy.
The Fourth Amendment, which is meant to preserve the basic human right to privacy, prohibits police from searching a person’s house without a warrant or an index of suspicion that the person committed certain acts. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that this amendment does not apply to police searching information shared through a third party (such as an online database). Genetic information is protected to an extent via the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, but only from employers and health insurers, meaning police are not confined by these regulations. In addition, many online databases are not covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule, which would otherwise control and prevent the revealing of healthcare information. While the letter of the law dictates that police may use this information, the spirit of the Fourth Amendment should be heeded as the Founding Fathers intended for citizens to maintain a level of privacy that is breached by police investigating their genetic data without probable cause or any index of suspicion the person committed a crime.
Advocates of the use of genetic databases point out that users provide consent before releasing their information. However, the terms and conditions of such a decision are often buried under long paragraphs of text that people often skim or sign without reading at all. Most importantly, even without an individual posting their genetic information, they can be tracked using DNA from a relative as distant as a third cousin. Indeed, the incriminating evidence against James DeAngelo was discovered via DNA posted by a relative. Therefore, when a person posts their DNA on an online database, they not only provide their own consent but indirectly consent on behalf of hundreds of relatives, taking power away from other people over an immensely personal decision.
The implications of police access to the population’s genetic information are astronomical. For example, genetic information at the scene of a protest could be used to trace back and identify who was present. If the protest involved a particularly controversial event, corrupt law enforcers could find and punish those involved, creating a “Big Brother” society where people are afraid to speak out about personal ideas due to constantly being watched. While Americans enjoy the right to free speech, it is entirely possible that corrupt members of the government and police force could exist in the future and attempt to take away this right. Access to the population’s genetic information takes away people’s protection from this possibility—the right to advocate anonymously—and unevenly distributes power to the government.
Even with the potential drawbacks, the power that nonforensic genetic databases provide the police to solve cases is tempting. These cases often involve killers who are a threat to the safety of the population. However, in issues of public security versus privacy, it is important to fully consider the costs and benefits in a given situation. Overall, more people are harmless than are killers, and many more people’s rights will be infringed upon than lives saved through catching these criminals. Ultimately, making the public’s genetic information available to police and the government will put the population at greater risk… the risk of losing freedom to the government, which, although not inherently corrupt, contains the same human genes that code for power hunger and ultimately corruption if left unchecked.
Kate Lee is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at Katherine.firstname.lastname@example.org .