Genetic testing has helped plenty of people gain insight into their ancestry, and some services even help users find their long-lost relatives. But a new study published this week in Science suggests that the information uploaded to these services can be used to figure out your identity, regardless of whether you volunteered your DNA in the first place.
The researchers behind the study were inspired by the recent case of the alleged Golden State Killer.
Earlier this year, Sacramento police arrested 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo for a wave of rapes and murders allegedly committed by DeAngelo in the 1970s and 1980s. And they claimed to have identified DeAngelo with the help of genealogy databases.
Traditional forensic investigation relies on matching certain snippets of DNA, called short tandem repeats, to a potential suspect. But these snippets only allow police to identify a person or their close relatives in a heavily regulated database. Thanks to new technology, the investigators in the Golden State Killer case isolated the genetic material that’s now collected by consumer genetic testing companies from the suspected killer’s DNA left behind at a crime scene. Then they searched for DNA matches within these public databases.
This information, coupled with other historical records, such as newspaper obituaries, helped investigators create a family tree of the suspect’s ancestors and other relatives. After zeroing in on potential suspects, including DeAngelo, the investigators collected a fresh DNA sample from DeAngelo—one that matched the crime scene DNA perfectly.
But while the detective work used to uncover DeAngelo’s alleged crimes was certainly clever, some experts in genetic privacy have been worried about the grander implications of this method. That includes Yaniv Erlich, a computer engineer at Columbia University and chief science officer at MyHeritage, an Israel-based ancestry and consumer genetic testing service.
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