The capture of the alleged Golden State Killer brought national attention to the relatively new ability of law enforcement to identify suspects by following their genealogical family trees to close relatives. The reason this is a relatively new technique is that it is only recently that databases of sufficient size to accomplish the technique came into existence. The reason? The proliferation of websites that allow people to voluntarily submit their DNA to learn more about everything from their family tree to genetic health markers.
It is yet another example of the voluntary erosion of privacy in the digital age. In a country that once valued privacy as among the most important right a person possessed, millions now intentionally share the most intimate and mundane details of their private lives with the world-at-large. The amount of information that can be learned about a total stranger with a few minutes of Google sleuthing is incredible. I know, it is one of the first things I do when I am investigating an adverse witness in a case.
I think many people have simply leaned into this erosion of privacy due to the sense that it is inevitable in any event. It does often feel like the choice one faces is accepting this loss of privacy or finding yourself completely disconnected from the online world where so much of our lives exist these days.
That said, I do not think people really consider the full implications of that loss of privacy. When people post on social media, are they actually considering the fact that the information they share may be considered by future employers? When people submit their DNA to find out where their ancestors are from do they stop to find out whether the company they are providing that DNA to might later turn around and sell it to their health insurer?
These are the kind of considerations that are given short shrift when our technologies advance so fast that we do not have the time to properly consider the ethical implications or how best to regulate new technologies. For now, then, we live in a bit of a wild west when it comes to privacy protections and only time will tell if some of the theoretical concerns will come to fruition.
Personally, while I share plenty on social media, I do my best to make that information as private as possible and I have not yet used any of the DNA services. I prefer to protect what privacy I have left for as long as I can.
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