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The ethics of crime solving and privacy: a review of “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark”

Book cover of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark. A dark overexposed picture of a house with bushy trees in the front.

If you are a fan of true crime writing, you will be well aware of Michelle McNamara’s work: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer. It is a truly chilling, terrifying, unsettling, and complicated story that spans decades. Since its release, the cold case also became extremely hot as police closed in on a potential suspect. People have argued that the McNamara’s work re-ignited police interest in the case and gave much needed life into what was considered a dead case. When it comes to looking at how detectives, police, medical staff, and biologists solve crime it is also important to look at the ethics behind their methods. The superficial answer to the question, “Should we do whatever it takes to catch a killer/criminal” would be a resounding “YES” from most people. If this question were put to victims or their friends and family, I can only imagine that this would be an even stronger “Yes.” Yet, a more complicated and better assessed answer to the aforementioned question is probably more like, “Well yes, but it is really complicated.”

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a true crime novel that follows the criminal actions of one man, “The Golden State Killer”, from 1974 to 1986. He committed at least 50 rapes, over 100 burglaries, and killed around 12 people. The time period of the crimes is extremely interesting as it was a time when society began to, slowly at first and then much more rapidly, develop into the digital age that we know today in 2018. Whilst forensic science is far from an exact art, it has grown and developed immensely since the 1970s. McNamara herself speculates that the Golden State Killer stopped his crimes in the mid-1980s because it was getting harder and harder for him to get away because of the advances in DNA research and forensic technology and methodology.

The Golden State Killer has since been charged for eight murders due to DNA evidence linking him to the crime scene and the victims. Due to the statute of limitations on rape and robbery in California/U.S.A., he cannot be charged with other crimes at this stage. The state of California now has an extremely large network within the criminal justice system that can store and cross-check DNA data for crimes and known-felons. However, the Golden State Killer was not exactly found this way. His DNA profile was sent to GEDmatch, which is an online open data DNA and genealogy tool. You could essentially use the site to find long lost relatives or learn your families ethnic roots. However, like all medical information there are limitations on how the data can and should be used and who has to give consent. This is made even more confusing because GEDmatch is also open. The most complex and concerning question this brings up is how should things like our DNA or other medical information be used? Imagine if every time you had a blood test it was sent to the lab for the routine results, but then it was also sent to the police to make up part of their DNA data base to catch criminals? Or what if, like Henrietta Lacks, your cells are harvested and used for medical research without your knowledge or consent, and also without any compensation (monetary or otherwise)? You might say to yourself, well I am not a criminal so I have nothing to worry about. However, that is not something you get to decide, which is something we have seen in the wake of internet monitoring and figures like Edward Snowden.

Online spaces are both real and unreal spaces. This is true for DNA and genealogy sites to Facebook. We talk about digital spaces and platforms, but they are essentially a lot of coding on a screen. They connect us with people around the world, yet they also section us off and monitor and collect information that we either voluntarily or involuntarily give. Rather than being separate and unique, we are actually sectioned off and being controlled through a panoptic gaze. The individual is quantified and measured against itself and others in the digital space, with the Internet as the main platform. This is a tool used not just by the NSA and metadata collectors, but also by social media, online news and commentary, and also between corporations that use the Internet as an online platform.

Questions about crime, privacy, policing, forensic science, and digital spaces are all part of a complex problem that the rapid changing digital and tech world has simultaneously created and has tried to solve. The question of who is allowed to have access to our personal information is not always easy to answer. Collecting mass data from the population and its horrible outcomes have been well documented in fiction novels like 1984 and Brave New World. On the one hand, I hope the catching of the Golden State Killer has brought a lot of people peace of mind, however, on the other hand, I would be lying if I said it was all good from here on out.

Have you read McNamara’s true crime novel? What do you think about the state of the privacy laws in our digitally advanced world? As always, share the reading love.

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