If my DNA helps catch a serial killer, I’m totally fine with that

my DNA

My DNA results overview page. I do not “shudder” to share this, with you or the cops.

This morning while working out on the elliptical, I started watching a movie on Netflix called “Anon.” It imagines a near-future in which there is no privacy. Apparently, everyone’s brain is wired to record video of every single second of his or her life — sort of like Google Glass without the glasses. And that data is easily shared wirelessly with other people, and is completely available to the police. The police can even access the last experiences of a dead person, which makes finding murderers ridiculously easy.

Also, you can watch TV or movies without a TV — they just stream in your head — and talk to anyone anywhere without a phone. Which, if an accurate prediction of the future, is really bad news for Best Buy. (First showrooming, now this…)

So since the main character (played by Clive Owen) is a homicide cop, a plot twist is needed to make his job interesting. In this case, the plot twist is that he’s on the trail of a serial killer who has managed to hack people’s digital memories, so that everything in the victim’s last moments is seen from the killer’s POV — so you see the victim being shot, but you don’t see the shooter.

I lost interest in it after 39 minutes, and switched over to “Babylon Berlin” for the rest of my workout. It may have been low-tech, but Germany between the wars was never boring.

But it reminded me of something I meant to blog about a week or so ago.

You’ve probably read about how the Golden State Killer was caught more than 40 years after his crimes when investigators tracked him genetically through a consumer DNA service like Ancestry. Basically, they found links to some of his relatives who had voluntarily shared their DNA info on such databases. Then they found him, and made a positive DNA match to something he’d discarded.

Which I thought was awesome.

But of course, this development immediately led to such headlines as:

The Golden State Killer Is Tracked Through a Thicket of DNA, and Experts Shudder

Data on a genealogy site led police to the ‘Golden State Killer’ suspect. Now others worry about a ‘treasure trove of data’

Really? Experts “shudder?” People worry about a “treasure trove of data” that not only can connect you to a 4th cousin, but help cops determine whether he’s a serial killer? Which would be a cool thing to know before you reach out to meet him or trade family information?

Why? That’s utterly absurd.

Sharing DNA info can lead to some pretty painful results for a lot of people. For instance, you can find out that your “Dad” isn’t really your Dad. This can lead to a great deal of family trauma and upend lives.

I’ve been lucky in that regard. My results have been boring. I am related to the people I thought I was related to in precisely the way I thought I was. There could be surprises in results from folks who have not yet been tested, but so far it’s been pretty vanilla. (Extremely vanilla, in terms of ethnicity — so much for those Ancestry ads that tell of all the exciting, exotic backgrounds people have found in their DNA.)

Not that there haven’t been surprises elsewhere on the tree. Some months ago, my daughter was contacted by a guy who was trying to find his birth parents, who thought a cousin of mine might be his father. Sure enough, he shows up on Ancestry as being right behind a couple of my first cousins in terms of his closeness to me. He narrowed it down to one of my cousins. I don’t know whether that cousin knows about it, because I haven’t wanted to pry.

Something like that can be upsetting to those involved, and I’m very sympathetic to that. But that’s just the DNA service working as advertised.

What these “experts” out there are “worrying” and “shuddering” about is the police being able to use these connections to solve crimes.

This does not worry me. If one of my cousins is a serial killer, I’d kind of like the duly constituted authorities to know that, and act upon it.

And I have trouble imagining a scenario in which that is a bad thing — although I’m sure we’ll see a movie soon that shows it to be a frightening thing…

14 thoughts on “If my DNA helps catch a serial killer, I’m totally fine with that

  1. Bart

    In 1956, my oldest brother was killed in an automobile accident. In reality, he was doing what most young men at the time did, they raced their cars on public highways late at night. He was the “apple of my mother’s eye” and that never bothered me at all. Naturally the family felt and had to deal with the loss of a son and brother who was loved dearly. Paul was very handsome and while he was in the Air Force in New England, he sowed a “wild oat” that took root. About six years ago, my sister called and informed me we had a nephew, the son of our older brother. Needless to say, it was a surprise and at the same time, a reason to be joyful and celebrate.

    He had traced my brother’s name but was never sure. He contacted my sister and she agreed to a DNA test and the test was positive for familial DNA and once we saw the photos of Tim, there was no doubt, he was Paul’s son and our nephew. The only sad part about it is that neither of our parents met Tim and I know they would have moved heaven and earth to see him.

    Thanks to Tim wanting to know who his family is and searched available records diligently and thanks to DNA, he was able to make the connection and fill in the hollow space in his life. He is much loved and welcomed into our family and we into his. For my sister and me, Tim is a piece of our lives that was missing since 1956 when we lost Paul. Tim cannot take his place but we know Paul’s life continues through his son and if Paul had known about Tim, he would have been a part of our family long ago.

    I am thankful that the heinous Golden State Killer was finally apprehended through the DNA connection that finally led to his arrest. It is probably a reasonably accurate prediction that the DNA testing will be used for nefarious purposes by people without good intentions but in the case of my nephew and the apprehension of the Golden State Killer, the good outweighs the potential for bad.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Thanks for sharing that, Bart! That’s a great story.

      I don’t know whether the story I shared from my own family had a happy ending or not. I only heard from the guy early in his search, not at the end, and I’m not close to the cousin he identified as his Dad (I’ve heard that he succeeded in doing that from third parties) — so I’ve sort of hated to reach out and ask either of them how it turned out, not knowing whether I’d be touching on a sore subject. I figure if they want to let me or my other relatives know about it, they’ll tell us someday…

      1. Bart

        It is something I gladly shared because of the blessing of knowing my brother left a legacy. Tim is one of the greatest guys anyone could ever meet. He is a devoted husband and father, retired from his civilian/military career and is an avid blues fan. He and his wife drove to my hometown and we met. Took him all around the city and county and let him explore his roots on his father’s side of the family. Went to the church my mother’s family helped build and the family cemetery at the church where a lot of family history is buried. The only sad part was he wanted to visit the place where his father, my brother, was killed.

        What was really fulfilling was the closure for Tim and the finality of his search and the peace knowing he had firm family roots from both sides of his family. I was fortunate to know about my mother and father, I cannot imagine what it was like for Tim for so many years.

  2. Dave Crockett

    My biggest concern is that insurance companies would love to get their hands on DNA records so that they could base life/health insurance rates on DNA-based tendencies. Or simply deny coverage on that basis.
    And I’m also a little concerned about a far-removed relative claiming inheritance to my estate based on a DNA match.

    1. Bart

      The inheritance is not a concern for me, don’t have much to leave to our children anyway. As for the insurance aspect, that could be a real problem if the insurance companies were to find a way to access the DNA files from the various companies offering the services and then use them as a basis for rates or denial of coverage. Our personal information is not so personal anymore as it is and further intrusion into our privacy even if we voluntarily seek DNA information for family tree research is not appealing.

      But, I suspect in the near future, DNA will be a standard requirement just as a Social Security number is now for anyone who wants to do just about anything that requires identification, especially for SS benefits, etc.

      Pandora’s Box potential?

  3. Norm Ivey

    The trail they took to find him was fascinating. They sent evidentiary DNA to the service, and found a multi-great grandfather, and then followed that individual’s descendant line until they found a couple of guys who were living in the right place and time. Then they collected discarded DNA from two potential persons–I imagine a coffee cup or a drink straw–and found the match. That’s just incredibly cool and smart.

  4. Norm Ivey

    I don’t know how this would ever be policed. I may want to keep my DNA private, but if my sister doesn’t, then mine is essentially out there as well. It’s like trying to keep your face a secret.

  5. Mr. Smith

    “If one of my cousins is a serial killer, I’d kind of like the duly constituted authorities to know that, and act upon it. And I have trouble imagining a scenario in which that is a bad thing.”

    Ok, let’s turn that around. The NIH is doing a massive study where it’s asking folks to submit their DNA information – and the agreement to provide this information explicitly states that the data cannot be used by law enforcement. So, I assume you think that’s wrong-headed and police SHOULD be allowed access to this NIH database?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’m saying they’re probably doing that to reassure participants, because so many people are touchy about their privacy. I’m saying they wouldn’t need to do that for me…

  6. Bart

    I know this has nothing to do with DNA but have you heard from Burl and if he has been affected by the volcano activity in Hawaii?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I have not, but if it affects him, it will likely be in terms of air quality. His island is far from the one where the eruption is occurring…


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