On Friday, police finally arrested a suspect in the savage stabbing and murder of four University of Idaho students in November. According to law enforcement, 28-year-old criminology graduate student Bryan Christopher Kohberger was identified through DNA sourced from a public genealogy database. Kohberger’s arrest is a relief to Americans across the country, particularly the victims’ families and the traumatized Moscow, Idaho community. However, it is also a reminder that DNA technology is a dangerously unaddressed issue that poses a threat to personal freedoms, privacy, and safety.
In 2018, DNA famously helped catch Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., a serial killer, sex offender, and burglar, who terrorized Californians for more than a decade in the 1970s and ’80s. Investigators found DeAngelo via distant relatives who had used GEDmatch, a free genealogy site where users find relatives by uploading their DNA test results.
The Golden State Killer case showcased the ethical dilemmas surrounding the use of DNA databases for crime solving. The primary problem is that there is no guarantee of DNA privacy, even if you don’t submit your DNA to a company like GEDmatch. It does not matter if no one in your immediate family submits DNA because people can be identified using distant relatives. In the case of the Golden State Killer, law enforcement narrowed their search using DNA data from family members directly related to DeAngelo’s great-great-great grandparents dating back to the 1800s.
Many wave away the privacy concerns because DNA has been used to catch criminals, including alleged murderers like Kohberger, but there’s no guarantee this technology will always be used for good. No institution on earth is incorruptible, and the FBI, CIA, and DHS have already illegally weaponized their power against the American people.
Don’t Believe the Privacy Promises
Another problem is that companies’ privacy promises are completely bogus. In 2019, GEDmatch helped solve the assault case of a 71-year-old woman who was strangled while practicing the organ alone in a church. Per GEDmatch’s terms of service, the site would only share users’ DNA with law enforcement in the case of sexual assault or homicide.
Since the Utah victim was not sexually assaulted and survived the attack, GEDmatch was not supposed to share users’ data to solve the case. However, the company’s founder decided to hand over DNA data anyway. The offender was subsequently caught and GEDmatch users’ privacy was breached.
In response to alarm and outrage from users over the privacy violation, GEDmatch decided people would have the option to “opt-in” to allowing law enforcement to access their DNA. The hope was that the “opt-in” mechanism would protect the privacy of users who did not wish for their information to be shared. However, in the fall of 2019, a warrant by law enforcement in Florida demanded access to all of GEDmatch’s DNA profiles, including users who had not opted to give law enforcement access. GEDmatch complied with the warrant.
Just because you don’t submit your DNA test results to GEDmatch, doesn’t mean your privacy is protected. If the terms of service can and have been violated at GEDmatch, they can be violated by other companies, too. Even though popular companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com have kept their pledge not to share personal information with law enforcement so far, that doesn’t mean they always will.
China is Buying our DNA to Build Bioweapons
Perhaps even scarier than American law enforcement accessing your DNA is when foreign governments obtain your genetic information. Fox News reports that China has the largest DNA database in the world. Included are millions of Chinese citizens whose genetic information is used by the authoritarian government to maintain its rigid surveillance state. However, countless Americans are likely part of China’s DNA database, too.
According to Gordon Chang, author of “The Coming Collapse of China,” China has been “buying American companies which have DNA profiles, subsidizing DNA analysis for ancestry companies, and hacking.” That means sending your DNA to an American company could risk landing your genetic information in the hands of the United States’ greatest foreign adversary.
It’s no secret China aims to become a frontrunner in the biotechnology industry, but Chang theorizes the communist country wants Americans’ genetic information for a far more frightening reason: biological warfare. “China is probably trying to develop diseases that target not just everybody, but target only certain ethnic or racial groups,” he suggests.
Entering the Unknown
During the early years of social media, no one could have predicted the kind of power Big Tech companies would wield over freedom of expression. Nor could we have imagined the sinister collusion between federal agencies and social media companies to silence political enemies of the left, engage in government psychological operations, and interfere in elections. Just as social media sites have been, DNA profiling will likely be abused in ways we are not yet aware of.
With millions of users submitting their genetic information, we’re slowly heading toward a national DNA database. Unfortunately, the law is not caught up with the science and no one is safe. While the arrest of a suspect is a victory for law enforcement and a comfort to the victims’ families, it is also a reminder that we need to address the growing issue of DNA privacy, sooner rather than later.