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DNA Databases Can Threaten the Privacy of Individuals Whose Profiles Are Stored in Them, Yet They Remain a Powerful Tool for Law Enforcement

by Jo Ellen Nott

On December 30, 2023, police arrested Bryan Christopher Kohberger at his parents’ home in Pennsylvania for the savage stabbing and murder of four University of Idaho students in November. Law enforcement sources report that DNA evidence obtained from a public genealogy database linked the slayings to the PhD student in criminology at Washington State University.

While Kohberger’s arrest brought relief to the victims’ families and the people of Moscow, Idaho, it should remind us that DNA technology can impact our privacy and safety. The large-scale collection of information stored in digital databases seems benign and, in many cases, is beneficial when doctors identify inherited diseases and conditions to help patients or when law enforcement investigates and solves crimes. It can have a dark side, however.

One of the primary concerns about DNA technology is breaching privacy. An individual can be identified by distant relatives having submitted DNA even if he or she or the immediate family has not submitted DNA to one of the big companies. In the well-known case of Joseph James DeAngelo Jr, former police officer who committed at least 13 murders, 51 rapes, and 120 burglaries in California, investigators found DeAngelo because distant relatives had uploaded their DNA to GEDmatch, a free genealogy site. Using an ancestor from the 1800s, investigators were able to trace a DNA path to DeAngelo.

GEDmatch has reportedly violated terms of service regarding sharing their users DNA profiles in two cases, one in Utah and one in Florida, when law enforcement warrants trumped company policy. The Florida warrant even demanded access to all GEDmatch’s DNA profiles, including users who had not opted to give law enforcement access. To date, Ancestry and 23andMe have kept their word to not share personal data with law enforcement.

Many dismiss privacy concerns because DNA is a powerful tool for law enforcement. Those concerned with privacy see beyond the current benefits of apprehending criminals or exonerating the unjustly convicted and speculate that the technology will not always be used for good. The Federalist writer Evita Duffy Alfonso points out that “no institution on earth is incorruptible, and the FBI, CIA, and DHS have already illegally weaponized their power against the American people.”

Another concern is that China has been buying American companies which have DNA profiles, according to Gordon Chang author of “The Coming Collapse of China.” Chang theorizes that many Americans have become part of China’s DNA database. China has over 100 million DNA profiles in the largest DNA collection on the planet. Chang suggests that Chinese will develop diseases that target only certain ethnic or racial groups as part of their biological warfare strategy.

Evita Duffy Alfonso warns us of the unknown power DNA profiling can have in the future. She points out no one predicted the power that tech companies would come to exert over freedom of expression, nor how the collusion between governments and social media companies would control the political narrative. She concludes by warning that law has not caught up with science and, as our country heads slowly but surely to a national DNA database, our privacy and safety are at risk.

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