FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- After California detectives used a popular online DNA database to track down a suspect in the decades-old Golden State Killer slayings, other police agencies quickly adopted the same technique.

Since that case was cracked last year, at least 50 other killings and rapes have been solved nationwide by using partial DNA matches to find suspects' relatives, whose identities can lead to arrests. But complaints about invasion of privacy have produced a backlash, leading the Florida-based database known as GEDmatch to change its policies.

The nonprofit website's previous practice was to permit police to use its database only to solve homicides and sexual assaults. But its operators granted a Utah police department an exception to find the assailant who choked unconscious a 71-year-old woman practicing the organ alone in church. The assailant's DNA profile led detectives to the great-uncle of a 17-year-old boy. The teen's DNA matched the attacker's, and he was arrested.

GEDmatch soon updated its policy to establish that law enforcement only gets matches from the DNA profiles of users who have given permission. That closed off more than a million profiles. More than 50,000 users agreed to share their information -- a figure that the company says is growing.

The 95% reduction in GEDmatch profiles available to police will dramatically reduce the number of hits detectives get and make it more difficult to solve crimes, said David Foran, a forensics biology professor at Michigan State University.

"Law enforcement needs these big databases for the chance that someone might be in there," Foran said. "Now that they are requiring people to opt in, my guess is that database is going to become very small."

Site co-founder Curtis Rogers said the change was being discussed before the Utah case. He said users received emails about the May decision, encouraging them to opt-in to police searches.

"We strongly support law enforcement," Rogers wrote in an email. "The use of genetic genealogy for providing leads in violent crimes has been called the biggest crime-fighting breakthrough in decades. Its incredible success to date has been due almost entirely to the GEDmatch database."

Such websites are popular with people researching their family trees. They upload DNA profiles obtained from genetic testing companies. Then GEDmatch's computers compare the results and identify possible long-lost cousins, aunts and others. Adoptees have found their birth families.

Police use the databases in hopes of identifying the relative of a killer or rapist. They upload a profile taken from DNA left by a possible perpetrator.

If they get a partial hit, they examine that person's relatives to find potential suspects. In a serial rape case, for example, detectives look for a male relative who lived near the attacks at the time. If they find someone, they surreptitiously obtain DNA samples from the suspect's trash or something he touched.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other critics say granting law enforcement exceptions that violate a website's policies is a slippery slope. They also believe broad genetic searches violate suspects' constitutional rights.

While many people instinctively support the technique if used to catch serial killers or rapists, they might feel differently about their DNA profiles being analyzed to pursue burglars and shoplifters. The ACLU wants Congress and state legislatures to impose restrictions.

A poll conducted last year by The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that most Americans do not want law enforcement blindly searching genetic databases. Half of those polled said such data should be shared with law enforcement only with the consent of the person tested. Thirteen percent said law enforcement should not use that information at all. About 30% said it should be shared without consent.

Carol Dodge waited more than two decades before a suspect was arrested last month in the 1996 slaying of her 18-year-old daughter, Angie, in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Detectives identified him using GEDmatch. Dodge said the suspect, who police say confessed, was not on investigators' radar and would never have been identified otherwise.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.

Thank you for Reading!

Please log in, or sign up for a new account and purchase a subscription to read or post comments.