George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four either served as a dire warning or as a blueprint depending on what side of the state you occupy. The Party, the ruling body of Oceania, established a pervasive surveillance state. Helicopters flew around peeking into people’s windows, every home had a two way television that couldn’t be turned off and allowed government agents to snoop on you, children were encourage from a young age to rat out their parents if they did anything seditious, etc. However, as cynical as George Orwell’s vision of the future may have been, it wasn’t cynical enough:
In April, California investigators arrested Joseph James DeAngelo for some of the crimes committed by the elusive Golden State Killer (GSK), a man who is believed to have raped over 50 women and murdered at least 12 people between 1978 and 1986. Investigators tracked him down through an open-source ancestry site called GEDMatch, uploading the GSK’s DNA profile and matching it to relatives whose DNA profiles were also hosted on the website. Now, using those same techniques, a handful of other arrests have been made for unsolved cases, some going as far back as 1981.
The New York Times reports that GEDMatch has been used to track down suspects involved in a 1986 murder of a 12-year-old girl, a 1992 rape and murder of a 25-year-old schoolteacher, a 1981 murder of a Texas realtor and a double murder that took place in 1987. It was even used to identify a man who died by suicide in 2001 but had remained unnamed until now. Many of these suspects were found by CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogist working with forensic consulting firm Parabon, who has previously helped adoptees find their biological relatives. “There are so many parallels,” she told the New York Times about the process of finding a suspect versus a relative.
Genetic databases are a boon for law enforcers. While most people are worried about the commercial databases like Ancestry.com and 23andMe, there is an open source genetics database called GEDMatch that, unlike the commercial products, doesn’t even require a warrant to access. What makes genetic databases even more frightening from a privacy standpoint is that you don’t have to submit your genetics. If a family member submits their genetics, that’s enough for law enforcers to identify you.
Since law enforcers are using this database to go after murderers, rapists, and other heinous individuals, it’s likely that many people will see this strategy as a positive thing. But government agencies have a tendency to expand their activities. While they’ll start using a new technology to identify legitimately terrible people, they quickly begin using the technology to go after people who broke the law but didn’t actually hurt anybody. The scary part about law enforcers using tools like GEDMatch is that they will eventually use it to go after everybody.