Lifestyle 4 min read

Genome Culture: The Killer App

Welcome to the future, because you can’t say no to catching a serial killer.

By Laura Hercher featured image Joseph James DeAngelo, the suspected ‘Golden State Killer’, appears in court for his arraignment on April 27, 2018, in Sacramento, California. DeAngelo, a 72-year-old former police officer, is believed to be the East Area Rapist who killed at least 12 people, raped over 45 women, and burglarized hundreds of homes throughout California in the 1970s and 1980s. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, California police arrested a man believed to be the Golden State serial killer, long sought for a rape and murder spree that ended in the 1980s. The next day, news broke that they had heated up the cold case by matching vintage crime scene DNA to samples uploaded by a number of distant cousins on GEDmatch, a website offering open access tools for genealogy buffs. Many people voiced privacy concerns, including comparisons to Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal and to examples of the inability of consumers to track and control the use of their DNA once they turn over their samples or post them on line.

Lawyers speculated on what limits courts might place on the use of found DNA, which can identify not only suspects but also witnesses and bystanders. Some people wondered about the admissibility of the match that identified the Golden State suspect, given that the police had created a fraudulent profile in order to upload his DNA, in violation of the website’s terms of service, which require users to attest that the sample they are posting is their own. Legal consensus appeared to be that this was well within standard operating procedure for law enforcement, akin to the ruses involved in an undercover operation.

The story illustrated the breadth and power of existing DNA databases built to help distant relatives reconnect; population genetics expert Graham Coop of the University of California, Davis, offered a statistical analysis showing that the chances of the police finding third orfourth cousins through a data set the size of GEDmatch were good. This may seem like a spooky idea, but it is also democratizing, since police and FBI databases reflect and perpetuate existing inequities in terms of who is most likely to be arrested.

Still, there are reasons to be wary of the specter of a police force with unfettered access to everyone’s DNA. Just last month Norway announced that they would be using DNA testing to authenticate familial relationships among immigrants. And while DNA is a great identifier, there is room for error and abuse. In Europe, DNA implicated one woman in over 40 crimes, including murder, until the German police found her in 2009 and discovered that she worked in the factory that made the cotton swabs used for taking crime scene samples.

But one thing no one suggested was that police should have acted differently in this case. Whatever doubts they expressed were about other uses; nobody was against capturing serial killers. This was, in a literal and metaphorical sense, the killer app — the indispensible use of a new technology.

Even when it doesn’t involve actual killers, the killer app is what drives technology forward. Oddly, this is the exact opposite of what we talk about when we talk about technology in advance. Ethicists and other prognosticators are much more likely to consider worst-case scenarios when they analyze purely hypothetical innovation.  Should we use genealogical databases to catch criminals? Before it happens, the response to that question is something like, “it might work in some cases, but …” Any student of rhetoric will tell you that the emphasis is on everything that will come after the “but.” After it happens, we are all, “we caught the serial killer. Full stop. Now, is there some part of this that doesn’t interfere with catching serial killers that you want to regulate?”

Forward-looking debates about new uses of technology are worth having, but to be truly useful they need to anticipate the killer apps. It is not useful to identify possible dangers and conflicts ahead. Every single technological innovation brings with it potential ethical issues and the dangers associated with misuse or error. That’s a given. It can’t be the end of the discussion. It can’t even be the beginning of the discussion. The productive starting point has to be identifying the killer apps.  Once we know what uses we cannot in good conscience forego, we can talk about limiting the risks. To do otherwise is to relegate ethical debate to the dusty halls of the purely hypothetical.

Here’s how we used this to catch a serial killer. Now, let’s talk seriously about how to protect everyone else.