Tracking down distant relatives and building your family tree with online DNA databases is incredible, isn’t it? You can learn about your great-great-great grandaddy, find a second cousin, or even track down your real birth mother. But what if your innocent journey to widen your family net leads to the arrest of a family member? And what if this all happens without your consent?

If you’ve never thought about this possibility, then it’s about time you did. Online DNA databases, like GEDmatch and 23andMe, have become a treasure trove of information — the kind of information that helps track down serial killers and rapists. While this might sound great at first, it’s important to consider some of the possible drawbacks.

Here’s what you need to know.

DNA databases can lead to arrests

It’s true. This seek-and-destroy via online DNA databases has led to some pretty high-profile arrests. In fact just last year, a familial search by way of GEDmatch helped law enforcement identify and arrest the Golden State Killer. If you’re not familiar with the Golden State Killer, he was responsible for over 10 murders, 50 rapes, and 100 burglaries during the 70s and 80s.

So, it’s a pretty big deal.

But he’s not the only killer to be handed over by an online DNA database. In fact, a handful of cold cases involving multiple murders and rapes have now been closed thanks to these DNA-rich resources. However, this process isn’t always perfect.

In some cases, innocent people who have uploaded their DNA into websites like 23andMe or AncestoryDNA have been wrongfully accused of committing crimes. Consider the Golden State Killer. Two other people were pinned as prime suspects before the real killer was arrested. This included a 73-year-old man who lived in a nursing home and was forced into giving a DNA sample by court order.

People who upload their data to DNA websites can find themselves tangled up in non-murder cases, too. Like Mrs. Heather Woock, who was told by her (previously unknown) half-siblings that she was one of over 50 people with the same father — a fertility doctor who, unbeknownst to his clients had used his own semen to impregnate his patients.

Potential ethical issues with DNA databases

Part of the reason innocent people may become suspects is because of contributions to DNA databases and the not-so-black-and-white process of reverse genealogy. Reverse genealogy can imply the potential involvement of hundreds of people who have nothing to do with the crime — and who may not even be related to the criminal. Add to that the under-advertised margin of error that DNA websites incorporate into these tests, and the potential circle of people involved only widens.  

Think of it this way. A criminal who has committed some grisly crimes — like murder or rape — probably isn’t going to submit his DNA to any website, ever, no matter what. Because of this, investigators are reliant on other people (relatives, primarily) who submit their DNA to have a genetic relationship with the criminal.

But even if investigators are lucky enough to find a match, that “match” won’t always detail why they’ve matched. This means that a family tree has to be built to help conduct research around common ancestors. Is this legal? Is it ethical? Is it right to involve all of these people in a crime they had nothing to do with? And then to dissect their lives, their families, and their relationships in the process?

Do DNA databases create privacy issues?

That’s what people are wondering. Is the process of tracking down criminals crossing privacy boundaries? Sites like 23andMe and AncestoryDNA do not allow law enforcement to use their database without a court order, but GEDmatch gives law enforcement free reign (although they do explicitly state that if you upload your DNA to their site, it can be used for “other purposes”).

But what exactly are those purposes and does that single disclaimer suddenly make it okay to involve you in a manhunt? A manhunt that could wrongfully incriminate you or a loved one? Where is law enforcement drawing a line in the sand? Is this resource only used for high-profile crimes or can it be used to hunt down anyone for anything at any time? Is it in your best interest to hold off on getting to know your great-great-great grandaddy until the law can catch up with this technology? .  These are very important questions to ask yourself before you hand over your DNA to one of these sites.

Thiessen Law Firm & representation for DNA cases in Houston

If you’ve been accused of a crime based on DNA testing, the Thiessen Law Firm is here to represent your case. We have a wealth of knowledge built on years of aggressive, professional representation. Not only is lawyer Mark Thiessen a recognized ACS CHAL Lawyer-Scientist, but he’s also designated as Houston Super Lawyer every year since 2012 and is board certified in criminal defense, making him uniquely qualified to fight for you in these new and complex cases.

Did curiosity about your family’s history land you in a DNA nightmare? Get the representation you deserve with Thiessen Law Firm. Call us at 713-864-9000 or contact us online to schedule your free consultation today.

Mark Thiessen

Mark Thiessen is an aggressive trial lawyer best known for his devotion to justice for his clients and high rank as a DWI Super Lawyer in Texas.