Genetic databases are solving murders and rapes. Privacy scolds should pipe down.
Andy Kessler, Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2020
In December, Michigan police arrested Robert Brian Thomas as a suspect in two cases of sexual battery—committed in Florida in 1998. These were the latest of hundreds of cold cases investigated since the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s April 2018 arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, the alleged Golden State Killer. There are still hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits nationwide, but now technology may make it almost impossible to get away with this crime. Privacy concerns are an obstacle in solving cold cases—but not an insurmountable one.
Here’s a quick recap of how crime DNA is processed. The first step is for law enforcement to check samples against the Codis database, the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System. Codis is limited in its use of only 20 DNA markers, and it has records only for convicts and some prior detainees. Only 14% of sexual-assault DNA is matched to a suspect through Codis.
Fortunately, Ancestry.com has the DNA of more than 15 million users, and 23andMe has 10 million. Neither shares data with law enforcement. But many users upload their results to third-party sites, like GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA, to find long-lost relatives. DNASolves is another database recently set up specifically to help solve crimes.
After GEDmatch co-founder Curtis Rogers opened access to law enforcement, investigators uploaded DNA from one of the Golden State Killer’s 50 rape and 13 murder crime scenes from 1974-86. They didn’t find a direct match but discovered enough potential close relatives to search the family tree and narrow down the suspects. They followed Mr. DeAngelo to a store and swiped his DNA off the door handle of his car.
David Mittelman, who runs DNASolves, explains the numbers. Using DNA sequencing, he can analyze a sample for $5,000, which covers DNA extraction, genealogy and manpower. “Hopefully costs will halve in the next three to five years,” he says.
Hundreds more cold cases have been investigated since the Golden State Killer arrest. There have also been a few positive developments in the world of DNA forensics recently. Last month GEDmatch was acquired by Verogen, a forensic genomics company in San Diego. And on Dec. 30 President Trump signed the Debbie Smith Reauthorization Act of 2019, which provides $151 million a year to analyze untested rape kits. These trends are helping bring about a world in which criminals would have much more reason to think twice. That’s the world I want to live in.
But there are signs of resistance. Last April GEDmatch allowed police to access its database for a case not involving rape or murder—a violent attack on a 71-year-old-church organist, who feared her attacker would return. Who wouldn’t want to solve that crime? Police soon arrested a 17-year-old suspect.
Some GEDmatch users, worried their DNA might be used for any purpose under the sun, revolted. In May the company changed its policy to bar law enforcement’s access by default, while allowing users to opt in if they like. As of November, only 185,000 of 1.3 million had done so.
That hurts. Many genealogists believe a million DNA samples is the threshold to help solve crimes, though 100,000 might have limited use. Not all 330 million Americans are in DNA databases, but enough samples can help fill in the missing pieces and build family trees accurate enough to narrow down criminal searches. FamilyTreeDNA is still opt-out.
The more the better, so how do we get more? Maybe, like Facebook and Google, DNA testing companies could encourage users to give up their information by providing them a useful service. Medical information might work, but even 23andMe and other testing services’ results are of only marginal use: “You have a 28% probability of psoriasis.” OK, should I worry?
I suspect the answer is the vanity play. They could let you know if you have genes that point to musical talent. Or the same sequence for athleticism as Tom Brady. Maybe your longevity profile is similar to Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at 122. Nice to know. That might be the carrot.
My close relatives aren’t criminals, I think, but who knows what my third cousins twice removed might be involved in? I’m happy to upload my DNA to a secure database and opt in for law-enforcement searches. You should be too. Privacy scolds should pipe down. The benefits of a safer society far outweigh the risks. With enough publicity, crimes that leave physical evidence, especially murder and rape, should become a lot less common.