We have a rather skewed sense of what to keep private and what to reveal.
Two recent news stories brought this thought to mind.
In one story we reveal more than we should, and in the other we reveal less than we should.
Revealing More Than We Should:
In early June, someone bought a lottery ticket in California and won the $530 million Mega-Millions jackpot.
That person has a year to claim their prize, and if they do, her or his name will be online, on TV, on everything and everywhere.
In California, as in many other states, rules decree that the names of lottery winners must be made public.
The reason given by lottery officials has to do with transparency.
They say things like lottery spokeswoman Patty Mayers told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in April 2019 – that the agency favors a policy which “protects the integrity of the lottery” and is “rooted in a tradition of transparency.”
Public figures love talking about transparency. Usually when they’re demanding it from someone else, but not of themselves.
The rational is that showing an actual winner demonstrates that the game is fair: “Look! My neighbor won the lottery!” And that everything is above board: “See that big check? They’re really getting all that money!” But most importantly, it boosts sales: “I never bought a lottery ticket, but now I will!”
Unfortunately, along with the money, winning a lottery can also bring heartache, financial ruin, and even death.
We’ve all heard the horror stories – the Internet abounds with them:
The guy who make bad financial decisions, and end up broke and living in a storage unit. The woman whose windfall allows her to invest in the wrong thing, like heroin or meth, until an overdose kills her. The people who make good decisions, even charitable decisions, but die at the hands of a greedy family member or friend or someone they don’t even know.
It’s easy to say, “Anonymity won’t protect people from the greedy if the winner tells them about winning,” and that’s true.
But if the winner is anonymous, then telling is the winner’s choice.
And it should be their choice, not the state’s.
Happily, I’m not the only one who thinks so:
Revealing Less Than We Should:
Even if you haven’t participated, you’ve probably seen the commercials for 23andMe.com and other companies – they’re called “direct-to-consumer DNA technology.” You submit a saliva sample and get results about your genetic information.
If you want to take your results further – do deeper genealogy research – you can upload your results to GEDmatch.com and compare your results with others who have done the direct-to-consumer test and added their results to GEDmatch.
I’d never heard of GEDmatch until April 2018, when California law enforcement announced the arrest of a man suspected committing at least 13 murders, more than 50 rapes, and over 100 burglaries in California between 1974 and 1986. Dubbed the “Golden State Killer,” 72-year-old Joseph DeAngelo was arrested with the help of GEDmatch and genetic genealogy:
At the time I thought, “What a great use of technology! Here’s a new tool to help law enforcement catch criminals.”
And in fact, it has. According to a June 7 Associated Press (AP) article, picked up by other media, since DeAngelo’s arrest at least 50 other killings and rapes have been solved nationwide by using this strategy:
And each time I heard about one of these cases, I thought, “Good! One less criminal on the streets, one more person and/or family with some measure of resolution.”
But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other critics started making waves. According to that AP article, “They believe broad genetic searches violate suspects’ constitutional rights.”
And ACLU attorney Vera Eidelman wrote, “Blockbuster investigations, as gratifying as they are, shouldn’t obscure the very real dangers of government access to sensitive information”:
So GEDmatch has updated its policy to establish that law enforcement only gets matches from the DNA profiles of users who have given permission. Users have to opt-in:
The AP article described this as a “95% reduction in GEDmatch profiles available to police.”
Leading investigative genetic genealogist CeCe Moore said, “We can be sure there are hundreds of cases that would have been solved in the coming months or years that very well won’t be now.”
I think this is crazy.
Thanks to social media, we’ve become a society – a world – where we give away our privacy, much of it “sensitive information,” on a daily basis.
In many public places, security cameras follow our every move. Satellites in space track you through your phone. We talk to our Alexa and other virtual assistants.
Our data is collected, sold to third parties – think Facebook and Cambridge Analytica – and used for all sorts of purposes.
Our data is stolen, as in this recent story:
We’re so busy giving away our privacy that we barely think about it anymore.
So the ACLU is concerned about “suspects’ rights”?
How about the victims’ rights?
This one story says it better than I ever could:
In April 2018 in southern Utah, 79-year-old Carla Brooks was sleeping when a man she didn’t know came into her house and woke her up, put a cloth in her mouth and sexually assaulted her.
It was genetic genealogy that identified Spencer Glen Monnett, 31, who faces first-degree felony counts of rape and object rape, along with a second-degree felony burglary charge and misdemeanor charges of sexual battery and simple assault.
Carla’s son Barton Brooks, 47, said he’s shocked by the DNA privacy debate.
“If my fourth cousin gets caught because of my DNA, that’s his problem. He shouldn’t have committed a crime,’’ Barton Brooks said.
In spite of the ACLU and others, this important work continues: