Years ago, when I first heard about online DNA match services, my reaction was something to the effect of, “Stuff you put online lives forever, you no longer have control of it, so what happens when privacy breaches happen?”
The recent high-profile US case of the alleged Golden State Killer was one example of the off-label use of DNA matching services that’s captured the nation’s imagination.
While many people have a preconceived notion of DNA being unique, decisive, and absolutely airtight, the reality is a touch more humbling, as multiple news outlets and law enforcement officials have warned of the perils, error rates, and numbers of false positives involved in family matching. If anything, it reinforces a need to follow the usual rules of investigation: strive to be more thorough, and always tread carefully.
While this particular legal case has raised a lot of eyebrows, to me it seems to be more about the unmasking of a killer than the means by which the latest set of leads was generated. This isn’t a new technology, it’s been around for quite some time. Police have used these services before, but those instances haven’t grabbed headlines in the same way as the case of the Golden State Killer.
To the officers involved, I salute your creativity and perseverance. Hopefully, once justice has taken its course and the case has been tried, you’ll have been able to give some much-needed closure to the families of the victims.
But that’s not why I’m writing.
What’s problematic about the mainstreaming of genetic sequencing and the subsequent breakdown of taboos surrounding our most sensitive personal possession — the DNA code — is not the risk of false positives or accidental misidentification in a police investigation. It’s the line of opportunists who are eager to acquire that data and bend it to their will for all manner of commercial, insurance, medical, and other misuses as people relax their guard and invite more and more strangers to the party to play gatekeeper to this extremely sensitive information.
If you’ve ever been a victim of identity theft, or if you’ve ever had someone run up a bunch of unauthorized charges on your credit card, you already have a glimpse of how it feels.
Your bank can issue a new credit card number, but you don’t get a mulligan once your DNA code makes it into the wild.