California officials used DNA from a genealogy website to catch Joseph James DeAngelo, the man they've accused of being the notorious Golden State Killer. But the company says it had no idea that police had retrieved the data, sparking privacy concerns about DNA testing companies and how law enforcement agencies interact with them.
Authorities in Sacramento, where DeAngelo lived for more than three decades, caught a big break earlier this month when they matched DNA from older crime scenes to the online DNA database of GEDmatch, a genealogy website run by two men in Florida. That gave the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department a sense of the suspect's family tree, which they then used to narrow down to DeAngelo’s profile — an older, 5-foot-11-inch, white male, with a possible proficiency with firearms.
The founder of GEDmatch, Curtis Rogers, said Friday he had no idea the website database would be used for criminal investigative purposes.
“We understand that the GEDmatch database was used to help identify the Golden State Killer,” he said. “Although we were not approached by law enforcement or anyone else about this case or about the DNA, it has always been GEDmatch’s policy to inform users that the database could be used for other uses, as set forth in the Site Policy.“
“While the database was created for genealogical research, it is important that GEDmatch participants understand the possible uses of their DNA, including identification of relatives that have committed crimes or were victims of crimes.”
Other genealogy websites, like 23andMe, go to great lengths to avoid allowing law enforcement to fish through users' DNA data without an official court order.
“It’s our policy to resist law enforcement inquiries, to protect customer privacy,” a spokesperson for 23andMe told the Huffington Post. “23andMe has never given customer information to law enforcement officials. Our platform is only available to our customers, and does not support the comparison of genetic data processed by any third party to genetic profiles within our database."
DeAngelo, 72, is suspected of a series of rapes, murders, and burglaries throughout California in the late 1970s and 1980s. He was arrested at his home last week after evading capture for 40 years, and has been formally charged with eight murders. He appeared in court Friday in a wheelchair wearing an orange jumpsuit. More charges are expected.