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In this April 27, 2018, file photo, Joseph James DeAngelo, accompanied by Sacramento County Public Defender Diane Howard, right, makes his first appearance to face charges that include homicide and rape, in Sacramento County Superior Court in Sacramento, Calif. Prosecutors have filed four additional murder charges against the former police officer who authorities suspect is the Golden State Killer. (Photo: AP/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

The arrest of the alleged Golden State Killer last month, decades after the horrific run of rapes and murders up and down California, launched advanced genetic genealogy into the public consciousness. The technique—which had produced a handful of cold case breakthroughs over the last two years—suddenly became the crux of an argument about privacy, governmental reach and Fourth Amendment issues.

Today, one of the genealogy tools that has been used to catch killers is shutting its doors—and some scientists told Forensic Magazine searches of the future will be a little more difficult.

FamilyTree DNA is removing all access to its free and public genetic genealogy databases ysearch.org and mitosearch.org, according to an announcement they sent out last week.

The letter cites two factors in their decision: both the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law, which is going into effect tomorrow—and also unspecified crime cases like the arrest of the accused Golden State Killer.

“We did not make this decision lightly,” the company said. “The current environment regarding DNA privacy as well as recent events in the news, particularly DNA databases being utilized to solve cold cases, were also considerations, but the rigorous requirements of GDPR would have prompted this action irrespective of current events.”

The GDPR basically gives members of the public more rights over the use of personal information—and increases fines on companies that don’t comply. Many private entities are reportedly scrambling to meet the rules before it takes effect tomorrow.

The Y-DNA searches, which function off patrilineal links, were especially useful to genealogists. For instance, the ysearch website is what provided the first crucial clues to catch the alleged killer behind the infamous Phoenix Canal Killings of the 1990s, two decades later. Colleen Fitzpatrick, the forensic genealogist who came up with the lead resulting in the arrest of Bryan Patrick Miller, initially was pointed in the promising direction of the Miller surname through ysearch. Follow-up work established the link with more clarity, but the first steps were taken with the now-defunct tool, she said.

Fitzpatrick told Forensic Magazine that she will still be able to ply her expertise in searching for killers and relatives through incredibly complex family trees of DNA. But now it may be a bit more complicated, she added. Using all the public data available through sites like GEDmatch, ysearch was commonly one of the first toe-holds to start a search. Now she has to rely on other algorithms that aren’t necessarily as easy.

“It was sort of a watering hole—where you could get some information on where to look, or what to do,” said Fitzpatrick, who is also co-founder of the non-profit DNA Doe Project. “(Shutting it down) makes it less convenient to do the work—not impossible. It just takes me a little bit longer—a little bit more fumbling around in the dark, so to speak.”

Barbara Rae-Venter is a genealogist who made perhaps the first big forensic genealogy splash: the connection of a girl abandoned at an RV park in California to one of the most infamous cold cases in American history, the Bear Brook murders in New Hampshire. That connection between the girl’s DNA and a family on the East Coast eventually led to the discovery of “Chameleon Killer” Terry Peder Rasmussen—who died in prison in 2010 under an assumed name. Authorities are still trying to piece together the untold havoc he wreaked across the country over several decades.

Rae-Venter told Forensic Magazine in a brief note that the loss of mitosearch will not have much effect—but the loss of ysearch certainly will.

FamilyTree DNA, which has been available online since 2000, had over 300,000 voluntarily-uploaded profiles in the two sites, according to the company, who did not respond to request for comment.

DNA science is now like a “gold rush,” added Fitzpatrick.

“The world’s changing, right in front of our eyes,” she said.

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