Tech versus privacy — the battle rages on


Foiled by a napkin!

Actually, “foiled” probably isn’t even the right word there. It kind of implies that the material in question was indeed foil, like a piece of Reynolds Wrap or some other “tin-like” product, whereas the substance in question was, in reality, a paper napkin. Well, I assume it was a paper napkin. I mean, the use of the word “napkin” carries a certain expectation for me that it would be constructed of paper, but I’ve surely used cloth napkins at various points in my life, so...

But I digress.

It was, in fact, a napkin that ultimately turned the tide, according to police. Jerry Westrom, a 52-year-old Minnesota businessman, was recently watching his daughter play in a youth hockey game and enjoying a hot dog. Unbeknownst to Westrom, according to an article on foxnews.com, while he was watching hockey, police were watching him.

Those police reportedly watched as Westrom wiped his face with a napkin, and then discarded it into the trash — the napkin, by the way, not his face. Police then retrieved said napkin, ran a DNA test on it and reportedly matched it to a 1993 cold-case murder of a 35-year-old woman.

Police apparently first began looking at Westrom for the murder when a search on an online ancestry website turned him up as a possible suspect. Investigators then tracked Westrom’s social media accounts and learned that he would be in attendance at that youth hockey game, according to police. 

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman told reporters that the investigators used “a genealogy company you see advertised on TV.” It is not known if Westrom or a relative of his put the genetic data on the site, according to the Fox story. 

Westrom was charged with second-degree murder last week, and was released from jail after posting $500,000 bail. His attorney, Steven Meshbesher, said, “What we’ve got is a very unsolved case and it was charged, in my opinion, prematurely.”

However, the New York Times reported that after Westrom was arrested, police obtained more DNA and found further evidence tying him to the murder scene. Regardless, he will get his day in court to defend his innocense, and the prosecutors will also get their day to prove his guilt.

How it got to this point is what is particularly intriguing to me.

This was an example of modern technology assisting with the tried-and-true investigative method of working a case from every angle until that work bears fruit. And it’s certainly not the first time.

Consider the case of the infamous “Golden State Killer,” a person wanted for the murder of 12 people and rape of 45 women across California between 1976 and 1986, according to an article in the Washington Post.

Police reportedly had DNA of the killer in evidence storage for decades, unable to find the person who matched the phsyical evidence left behind during a spree that terrified residents of California for years. They then checked the crime scene DNA against one of the popular genealogy sites, and though they didn’t find an exact match, police said they were able to find a DNA that partially matched what they had recovered earlier, meaning they felt like they had come across at least a distant relative of their suspect. That shrunk their pool of potential suspects from millions of people down to a single family, according to police.

That eventually led police to arrest Joseph James DeAngelo, a former police officer who lived within a few miles of many of the attacks. 

While this has become an obviously-helpful tool for law-enforcement officials in regards to finding DNA matches to evidence recovered at crime scenes, privacy advocates are obviously concerned with the practice. Many people submit their DNA to these sites to see a breakdown of their cultural heritage, or to confirm genetic matches or any other number of reasons that don’t include expecting to implicate a child or parent in a crime when they are just trying to see if they have 8 percent Viking in their blood.

The battle of individuals’ rights to privacy versus giving law enforcement all the tools they need to adequately fight crime goes back long before DNA testing sites began to take hold. Do you remember the passing of the Patriot Act after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001? Or when magnetic stripes started being used on credit cards? Or when people were concerned that police using cell towers or the GPS features in mobile devices were able to track people?

We all want police to catch the bad guys, but we all also want government staying out of our lives if we’re not doing anything wrong. Actually, I’m sure some bad guys don’t want the police to catch the bad guys, but you know what I mean. It’s a slippery slope, but a fascinating one, as well.