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Lawmaker seeks to curb police mass searches of genetic databases

SALT LAKE CITY — In the age-old balancing act between privacy and public safety, a Utah lawmaker has spotted what he sees as an online danger zone.

State Republican Rep. Craig Hall of West Valley City joined Lee Lonsberry on his show Live Mic to talk about his legislation (HB 231) that he said would guard against government cyber-snooping of genetic information.

“In the last few years, consumer DNA screenings have exploded,” he said, especially in Utah —  home to genealogists and ancestry hobbyists.

“I’ve spit in a tube myself and mailed it off to,” said Lee.

“What my bill would do is prohibit mass searches of genetic databases by the government,” said Hall.

Police come knocking said Monday that it rejected a search warrant from a Pennslyvania court to allow police access to its database of 16 million DNA profiles.

Hall acknowledged that and 23AndMe do a good job of protecting customers’ privacy and “resist any kind of law enforcement intrusion.”

However, in November for the first time, a Florida state judge forced public genealogy site GEDmatch to allow police to search its database of DNA profiles. A detective sought a distant relative of a serial rapist in hopes that their family trees could help him locate a suspect—even though most of the 1.3 million people who have shared their DNA data with the site haven’t agreed to such a search.

GEDmatch has since updated its policy that police only get matches from the DNA profiles of users who have given permission.

California detectives in 2018 tracked down the identity of the Golden State Killer using DNA collected at a crime scene decades earlier to locate distant relatives of the alleged killer, 72-year-old former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo.

Searching family tree ‘because we can’

Hall said the privacy concerns arise from the publicly accessible websites where people upload DNA profiles to see who in the world they are related to.

“It’s understandable that law enforcement would want to find leads using this very private DNA information,” he said, adding, “but we need to protect the privacy of innocent individuals as well.

“If the government-mandated a camera in every house, we’d be able to catch a lot of bad guys, but, of course, the Constitution doesn’t allow that,” Hall said.

Hall said his bill would still allow law enforcement to use DNA where they have probable cause to catch a certain suspect to confirm a match.

He said he wants to prevent police from searching millions of DNA profiles of hunting for criminals “because we can.”

Live Mic with Lee Lonsberry can be heard weekdays from 12:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. on KSL NewsRadio. Users can find the show on the KSL NewsRadio website and app.