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CBS Investigates: Could genealogy websites help identify Racine County murder victim?

Milwaukee, Wis. (CBS 58) – DNA kits that help people track their heritage are raising questions about genetic privacy.

A suspected serial killer in California is behind bars in  after police used a DNA sample and a genealogy website to identify him. Know for decades only as the “Golden State Killer,” Joseph DeAngelo is now charged with murder. However the case sparking debate about whether or not police violated privacy rights—using that genealogy site.

In Racine County, the idea of using genealogy websites is offering new hope in identifying a Jane Doe, whose body was found in a cornfield in 1999.

“She was brutally raped and murdered,” said Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling. “[She was] tortured.”

Sheriff Schmaling says for 19 years investigators searched for Jane Doe’s identity and her killer.

The Golden State Killer, who police say is responsible for several rapes and murders in the 70s and 80s, was identified after investigators uploaded the suspect DNA to GEDMatch. The site lets users to upload their DNA profiles and matches them with relatives. In the California case, it matched police with a relative of the killer, leading to an arrest.

“Its very exciting,” Sheriff Schmaling said.

Sheriff Schmaling now wants to compare Jane Doe’s DNA with samples submitted to genealogy sites. with the hope that one of her relatives is in the database.

“We’re working with our county’s lawyers to find out what legalities do we face?” Sheriff Schmaling said.

At the time investigators in California used GEDMatch, the site was intended only for people to upload their OWN DNA profiles.

Criminal defense attorney Julius Kim says the use of these sites by police is new legal territory.

“When law enforcement accesses those databases, it might be contrary to a company’s rules about the question is whether it amounts to a constitutional violation and I’m not sure it does,” Kim said. “Those are things that have to be worked out through the court system.”

Some sites, like GEDMatch, are public and ask you to submit a DNA profile you already have. Other sites, like 23 & Me and Ancestry DNA, generate your DNA profile by having you submit a saliva sample. Then they give you information about your heritage and connect you to other users of the site that could be your relatives

Blake Welter used 23 & Me.

“There was a privacy statement somewhere, I don’t’ remember exactly what it was but I didn’t read it too in-depth, to be honest,” Welter said.

Welter says he did know he was giving up genetic information, but didn’t really think about how it could impact DNA relatives until the California case.

“I never thought about that, that way,” Welter said.

CBS 58 Investigates found there are not clear cut laws about your privacy rights when it comes to your DNA. And every genealogy site has its own rules.

In its policies  23 & Me and Ancestry DNA state investigators need a warrant for DNA. As of now both sites indicate they’ve never turned any genetic information over to police. But experts says it could only be a matter of time.

“Whenever we have a high profile case, suddenly everyone starts utilizing something that was successful in one case,” Kim said.

While everyone we spoke to is relieved a serial killer is off the streets, Dr. Alta Charo, a law professor at University of Wisconsin Madison who also researches bioethics, says the case could have negative consequences.

“Anytime we give people the impression that the information may be turned against somebody else, or against them, we discourage people from participating in what I think is going to be a 21st Century necessity,” Dr. Charo said.

A necessity because many genealogy sites allow the DNA information to be used by researchers.

“There’s tremendous value to be found in accessibility to databases for things like public health research, genetic epidemiology, discovering hints to new drug therapies,” Dr. Charo said.

Dr. Charo says to protect your privacy, when you give a DNA sample, make sure you know exactly how it will be uses.

“Find out what those things are,” Dr. Charo said. “A lot of those things are important things that I encourage people to say yes. Have things used for research, absolutely. We need that in order to better understand the onset and treatment of various diseases.”

Experts tell CBS 58 Investigates they do expect more regulation when it comes to DNA.

“I think this is an area where we’re going to see further development of the law in terms of privacy rights, whether there’s a reasonable expectation of privacy,” Kim said.

The Founder of GEDMatch declined to do an interview, but GEDMatch changed their policies in the wake of Golden State Killer arrest. Now the site allows law enforcement to submit DNA to find suspects of violent crimes and identify remains, like those of Jane Doe.

“We might be able to track her last steps so many years ago and who she was with and where she was at,” Sheriff Schmaling said. “And that might lead to a suspect.”

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