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May 12, 2023

The Ethics in using Ancestral Databases with DNA analysis to Solve Crimes

Ancestral websites have been used to allow users to learn more about themselves by giving them insight to their family history. It allows them to create family trees to trace their lineage and learn about possible ancestors [1]. These results are created through the search of public records, census data, birth and death certificates. GEDmatch, which is one of the many ancestry websites used, explains how a persons genetic profile is compared to all other profiles that have submitted to their website[2].This allows for matches to be made to form their family tree. This is important information to share to the users because it helps to give insight on how matches made amongst other users on the platform gives details about possible relatives that exist and can even go as far to show distant relatives.

Listed are some examples of ancestry websites that allow the upload of raw DNA data to use for analysis. [11]
Once a submission of an individual’s DNA is made to these websites, what other parties are granted access to it? This has created an ethical issue in relation to law enforcement being able to retrieve information from a users genetic profile. By doing so, this helps law enforcement create leads and find potential suspects for crimes committed. It has become an ethical issue due to privacy concerns, there being a lack of consent, and potential false positives that can arise from this type of testing causing stress and consequently burdening and innocent persons life [3]. Law enforcement officers aren’t able to access the databases of direct- to- consumer DNA testing websites which include and without a proper warrant or court order. However other websites like and don’t require warrants for police to be able to access their database[4]. This affects the privacy of users content which brings into question if the 4th amendment is ultimately being violated. The 4th amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures from the government. However the 4th amendment does not apply to data that has been voluntarily shared with third parties which is usually what is done when one accepts the terms and conditions of these websites[5].

Shown is a picture of Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. once he was arrested for the Golden State killer rapes and murders. Alongside is an image of the login page of the GEDmatch website that was used to help aid in his arrest. [12]
Between the 1970s-1980s Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., later known as the Golden State Killer raped 42 woman and killed 12 woman in Sacramento California. DNA samples were collected from multiple of his crime scenes and were tested which helped conclude that the samples collected from each crime scene were from one single individual revealing there was a serial killer they were in search for that continued killing and raping all of these victims that seemed to keep appearing. This case went cold for decades due to no suspects arising from the DNA samples submitted to CODIS or NDIS and there being no other evidence found that could potentially help make a possible connection. [6].

In 2018 Joseph James DeAngelo was finally arrested from the help of genealogy. A law enforcement officer submitted one of the DNA samples collected at the crime scenes to GEDmatch. Although DeAngelo himself never submitted DNA to any of these websites and was not in the database, they were able to find a match to one of his distant relatives which allowed them to start obtaining leads by formation of a family tree[7].

An example of how a family tree is created which depicts how the use of DNA analysis using an ancestry website like GEDmatch can make connections between distant relatives which can help lead to potential suspects.[13]
They were then able to narrow down their suspect list based on age, gender, location and other characteristics using numerous investigative techniques. This allowed their list to be narrowed down to 2 suspects which were Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. and his brother John DeAngelo. Their houses were then under surveillance and investigators were able to retrieve a tissue and cigarette bud from their trash which would help reveal that Joseph DeAngelo was their serial killer [7].

The Golden state killer case received a lot of public attention due to the technology that was used to aid in his arrest . People questioned wether such searches are legal and how consumers can protect themselves from their genetic information being used and obtained by law enforcement. This attention from the public led to GEDmatch to alter their policies to include that they permit law enforcement the use of its database to investigate homicides and sexual assaults [8].

In 2008 the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) was signed into law. This act protects against discrimination of ones genetic information from employers and health insurers [9]. However this law does not protect the privacy of genetic information from law enforcement and there is no exact law that does. As of May 18, 2019, GEDmatch updated its policies and began requiring members that are joining to decide during their registration if they will opt-in or opt-out of law enforcement matching, having opting in is as the websites default setting [10].This would mean that pre-existing members would have to change their settings depending on their preferences if the website did not automatically opt- out existing users which can have existing users unaware that this has become an option. If a user chose to opt- out of law enforcement matching, they cannot be certain that any relatives they have also opted out and voided any possible traces to them. Which goes in hand with users who chose to opt- in, relatives who did not voluntarily submit their DNA to any database can now become a part of an investigation due to the fact that they are family member of the suspect who allowed matches to transpire and create a family tree [10].

Example of DNA overlapping between first cousins and their common grandmother using GEDmatch based on a genome- wide set of single nucleotide polymorphisms. [14]
There still remains some lack of privacy due to the fact that genetic matches are still capable of being created and involving an individual who gave no consent, did not accept any terms and conditions, did not submit personal genetic material to any similar database which granted them a choice of opting in or opting out. Yet somehow they can still become a suspect on account of a family tree being created due to a relative opting in which helped generate leads. The Golden State Killer case is a prime example of that occurring and the technology used in that case has since been used to solve other crimes and will most likely continue to be used due to its effectiveness [6, 7].

This concludes that going forward full transparency should be granted to the consumers and ancestry websites should be required to make their policies and certain acknowledgments about their data possibly being used for forensic investigations easily accessible and in layman’s terms rather than having them buried at the very end of their police’s and terms in small print while also using vocabulary that can cause confusion of its meaning to consumers. These ethical concerns and issues should be continued to be critically investigated before the use of this type of technology is fully endorsed and becomes a primary source of evidence and part of routine procedure due to the unethical stance of privacy being violated.






1. What is and How Does It Work? (2022, March 11).

2. The Magic Within Your DNA | How it Works – GEDmatch. (2022, June 10). GEDmatch – Comprehensive Solutions for Genetic Genealogy and Family Tree Reseach.

3. Berkman, B. E., Miller, W. K., & Grady, C. (2018). Is It Ethical to Use Genealogy Data to Solve Crimes?. Annals of internal medicine169(5), 333–334.

4. Do police have access to your DNA? What to know about investigative genetic genealogy. (n.d.). The Palm Beach Post.

5. Guerrini, C. J., Robinson, J. O., Petersen, D., & McGuire, A. L. (2018). Should police have access to genetic genealogy databases? Capturing the Golden State Killer and other criminals using a controversial new forensic technique. PLoS biology, 16(10), e2006906.

6. The untold story of how the Golden State Killer was found: A covert operation and private DNA. (2020, December 8). Los Angeles Times.

7. Phillips C. (2018). The Golden State Killer investigation and the nascent field of forensic genealogy. Forensic science international. Genetics36, 186–188.

8. Madden, P. (2018, April 30). Evidence is controversial in Golden State Killer case. WTRF.

9. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008. (n.d.). US EEOC.

10. Guerrini, C. J., Wickenheiser, R. A., Bettinger, B., McGuire, A. L., & Fullerton, S. M. (2021). Four misconceptions about investigative genetic genealogy. Journal of law and the biosciences8(1), lsab001.

11. Ph.D., C. S. (2022, July 18). GEDmatch Genesis review – Best tool for genetic genealogy? Nebula Genomics Blog.

12. The Genealogy Website That Helped Crack The Golden State Killer Case Has Been Bought By A Forensic Genetics Firm. (2019, December 10). BuzzFeed News.

13. Vancouver police using same DNA technique that caught suspected Golden State Killer | CBC News. (n.d.). CBC.

14. Using DNA Databases to Track Down the Golden State Killer Suspect. (2018, May 8). Using DNA Databases to Track Down the Golden State Killer Suspect | College of Biological Sciences.

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Angelica Garcia

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1 comment

  • Andrew Ponce

    Technology is improving every day. This article identifies this fact. What this publication does for the reader is bring to light a new mention of how technology can affect the lives of others. This article does an amazing job at providing structured data and teaching the read about this topic. Student;s should take every opportunity to look into the advancement of technology and how it can now be used to change the game of crime solving, but also the issues of ethics that come into play. Amazing work!

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