The moral maze of DNA testing

Last week something long-expected happened in the sleepy world of genetic genealogy. The news broke that police in California had used a database of DNA testers to identify the “Golden State Killer”, believed to be responsible for at least 12 murders and 45 rapes. According to these reports the police submitted a DNA profile from a possible suspect to the GEDMatch genetic database. GEDMatch is a much-loved database for genetic genealogists allowing us to compare our DNA against other testers and identifying how much DNA we share in common, and hence, how closely we are likely to related.

There are a few things that sets GEDMatch apart from other DNA databases. For a start this isn’t a DNA testing company (unlike “the big three and a half” ancestry.com, 23andMe.com, familytreedna.com and livingdna.com). There is no lab, it just a couple of genealogists running a website and the database behind it. With no DNA lab to generate the information, the database of DNA samples is built by the users uploading their own DNA data from whichever company the tested with, hence the description of GEDMatch as “open-source”.

The other point to note is that GEDMatch does not restrict you to searching the database with  your own DNA. If you have someone’s “GEDMatch Number” you can look at the same information as if you were looking at your own DNA results. Finding a GEDmatch number isn’t difficult, since one of the main reports generated by the website lists all your genetic matches and the GEDMatch number. Philosophically speaking, GEDMatch is a website for those genealogists who are open about their DNA data.

Given that GEDMatch is very much a hobbyist website, then it’s obvious that it would not have the resources to have provide the same level of privacy that the mainstream DNA testing companies do, with their own Chief Privacy Officers and regular Transparency reports.

At this point I think it’s worth disclosing my own use of GEDMatch. I’ve been quite happily using the GEDMatch database for a number of years. On occasion I’ve wrote about it as part of my research. Where I have used it I’ve tried to remove any potentially identifying information, in particular the GEDMatch number and kit names of people (except my own kit name, which I’ve left in for clarity).

Since this news-story broke there have been a number of voices within the genetic genealogy community writing about the ethical issues involved with such a case. I doubt I will be able to replicate either their knowledge or lucidity of the issues, but wanted to write something to both give my own perspective on the issues and, if I’m honest, try and better order my thoughts. Having mulled over the issues, I think there are two key issues that make me nervous about police use of GEDMatch.

Police needs vs Societal agreements

The job of police forces around the world is to stop crime and where it has occurred identify the culprit so that the legal process can be applied. That’s fair enough and, naturally will mean that police forces look to use those tools which further those goals. There is, however, a dynamic between the tools and methods police would like to use and the type of society people wish to live in.

It is up to society at large to decide what tools and techniques are acceptable, and what sort of oversight society has to how those techniques are applied. This oversight is commonly applied through court orders where a judge can decide if there is reasonable evidence that the use of such techniques are permissible.

In my opinion there needs to be a much more robust debate and consensus within society as to when police forces can use tools such as GEDMatch and what oversight would be needed for police access. It is perhaps inevitable that police use of GEDMatch has got ahead of any such debate as there are a vast number of technological developments within our society where the technology has got ahead of the legal framework for it’s use. Off-hand I would suggest that this has also occurred in the fields of encryption, facial-recognition, AI and the recent scandal regarding Facebook user profiling.

An unwilling genetic legacy

Many of the comments I’ve seen on the use of GEDMatch go along the lines of “Great, the bad guy got caught, the police are welcome to use my DNA”. Whilst I am in total agreement that the capture of the person believed to be the Golden State Killer is a good thing, I’m concerned at the DNA legacy I leave behind my descendants. Living in Germany I’m well aware that the government may not always be acting in the interests of it’s own citizens. In the 20th century it was not just Germany that was involved in the genocide of it’s own citizens. Similar genocides occurred in Stalin‘s Russia, Pol Pot‘s Cambodia, Mao Zedong‘s China and sadly, many, many others. Indeed there still are many states in the world today who act against their own citizens with the intentions of keeping the existing government in power (think North Korea and, again, many others).

In such situations I believe it is legitimate for the people to act against the state and thus break the law. I would hate to think that myself or my descendants/relatives would be identified in such situations through my DNA results.

As an aside – this is the reason I have not and will not ask my children to do DNA testing. When they are adults they can make that decision for themselves.

Final Thoughts

I must admit I’m still undecided as to what to do as a result of this news. At the moment I remain on GEDMatch, although I do not have a family tree attached to my profile. It will be hard for me, as a genetic genealogist, to remove my data from GEDMatch. I enjoy the process of collaboration with other DNA relatives that helps us both to build our knowledge of family history. In addition I’m currently playing with the fabulous DNAPainter application, that relies on information primarily from GEDMatch. Probably the best I can say is that currently I will monitor the situation and see how GEDMatch respond to this situation.

PS. If you are interested in the ethics of DNA testing then the go-to document is the Genetic Genealogy Standards which were drawn up by a group of leading genetic genealogists. At the time these standards were drawn up *(201) I suggested, probably very ineloquently, that it was unethical to DNA test children for genealogical purposes. I still believe that, in the vast majority of cases, to be true. Sadly my suggestion was not included in the standards.

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