Natalie Ram, assistant professor in the University of Baltimore School of Law and a specialist in bioethical issues, is weighing in on the use of a public, online DNA repository to help catch a high-profile killer. National media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio, have asked for Ram’s views on the law enforcement techniques used to build a case against the so-called “Golden State Killer.” Although the arrest ended a 42-year-old manhunt, concerns over the secondary use of personal information have been raised. In many ways, these concerns mirror the recent Facebook scandal.
On Jan. 24, Joseph DeAngelo, 72, was arrested for crimes attributed to the Golden State Killer: 12 murders, 50 rapes, and more than 100 burglaries. Also known as the East Area Rapist, the Visalia Ransacker, and the Original Night Stalker, DeAngelo’s alleged career of violence has both horrified and fascinated Americans for decades. While the FBI and California police agencies have had DNA on file since 1981 which connected all the crimes, it wasn’t until investigators created a fake account on a genealogy website that DeAngelo was made a suspect.
This case already has an interesting connection to DNA forensics―the creation of California’s massive DNA database is attributed to an attempt to catch the Golden State Killer by collecting genetic material from all accused and convicted felons within the state―but Prof. Ram and others say the use of personal identifying data on genealogical websites by investigators raises ethical concerns.
“People want to use that information to learn more about themselves, but they are not always thinking about how that information might be used by law enforcement,” she says.
For the last several years, Ram has been writing about the need for legislation regarding genetic data used by police. But until now this issue has been purely speculative.
“The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution represents a principle about having a zone of privacy free from government surveillance unless you are under individualized suspicion sufficient to support a warrant,” she says. “There’s nothing like that in this case.”
Read about the case in the Wall Street Journal.
Watch Prof. Ram’s interview on WBAL-TV.
Listen to her interview on WGN Radio.
Learn more about Prof. Ram.