The Messy Consequences of DNA and the Golden State Killer Case

From an article by Sarah Zhang in the highly-respected The Atlantic web site:

“Tools meant to reunite families are now being used essentially to get families to put their members in jail.”

While few of us anticipated the intersection of genealogical DNA databases and police cases, many of us were intrigued when the combined efforts of law enforcement and a genealogist resulted in the identification of the suspected Golden State Killer last year. Now that precedent has opened the field to other cases, questions arise surrounding the ethical and legal aspects of these unforeseen applications.

Here are a few other quotes from the same article:

“Police officers were uploading crime-scene DNA to genealogical databases without any formal oversight, and prominent genealogists disagreed bitterly on how far they should be let in. The debate became so toxic that genealogy groups on Facebook banned any discussion of law enforcement. Decades-old accusations—unrelated to genealogy—were dragged up to discredit vocal members. People were blocked. Friendships ended. At a genealogy conference in June, the different sides ignored each other from opposite ends of the bar.”

“This single episode managed to inflame the fears of people on all sides of the law-enforcement debate. It showed the flimsiness of privacy protection by terms of service. It showed that police could push to expand the types of crimes investigated. It showed that access to DNA databases, for genealogists on criminal cases, could easily and abruptly be taken away.”

“Genealogists also worried that others who break the rules or do not know what they’re doing could spark even more public outcry—and ultimately hurt the field.”

“For [Curtis] Rogers, who started GEDmatch in retirement and is now 81, the questions about law enforcement have been a big headache. He didn’t get into this field to answer difficult questions balancing about privacy and public safety. He was just interested in family history. ‘I wish it had never happened,’ he says. ‘I think it’s just a big distraction for genealogy.'”

This article is full of contradictory opinions. I don’t know which opinions are “the best” ones, but I do suggest that every genealogist who is interested in DNA should read this article and then carefully consider what is best for himself or herself.

The Messy Consequences of the Golden State Killer Case by Sarah Zhang may be found at: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/10/genetic-genealogy-dna-database-criminal-investigations/599005/.

8 Comments

This was a better article than I expected it to be, and I concur with your recommendation that any genealogist using DNA in their research read it. The use of DNA in my own research has helped knock down several brick walls I despaired of ever resolving, so I would hate for this valuable tool to go away. On the other side of this coin, I am also still sitting between a first cousin and his out-of-wedlock daughter who matched my DNA at Ancestry. He doesn’t want me to tell her he’s her father (so I haven’t), and fortunately she has yet to really lean on me for help.

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It should be pointed out that the article repeatedly uses the term “forensic genealogy” rather than the term “genetic genealogy.” Forensic genealogy is any kinshin determination in cases with legal implications, for the purposes of civil or criminal legal cases. Genetic genealogy is the use of genetics and genealogy, which when used in legal cases becomes forensic genealogy. Not all genetic genealogy is forensic genealogy. Not all forensic genealogy is genetic genealogy. The intersection is when genetic genealogy is used in a legal case.
Also, there is a credentialing program for forensic genealogists. Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy is currently updating its credentialing process. There is currently no credentialing process for genetic genealogists, either in legal or non-legal cases. The article correctly points out the rush to hang out shingles. But until the practitioners recognize the necessity of standards and credentials comparable to other experts who serve the legal profession, our forensic genealogy profession is at risk of just that one case where the skilled attack of a defense team blows a practitioner out of the water.
Dee Dee King, Certified Genealogist, Board for certification of Genealogists
Fellow, Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy

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If one of my relatives was a serial killer or rapist, I would rather expose him. I would like it to be done in a way that there are not false positives (mistaken identity), though. I would feel bad that my relative had done this, but worse for his victims.

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This is not controversial at all. If you committing crimes and people can use DNA to track you down, there is zero reason to not do so.

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@Sean Boon
Agreed. I don’t agree with what GEDMatch did by now making people opt in. I don’t get the privacy issue there.
I do get the privacy issue on Ancestry and every other online tree service where people put my parents and grandparents in their trees (including my deceased siblings & sometimes me) when the tree owners are either only extremely distantly related, did not know my family members, or are only related through marriage. Now THAT’s a privacy issue to me.

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Disagree on both counts. I didn’t submit my data to GEDmatch to track down criminals, I did it to advance my genealogical research and help others do the same. Law enforcement use of my DNA, unless under stricter controls and proper warrants, is something I don’t want. It is a privacy issue, and I have not opted in. As far as people putting distant relatives on trees, if they are properly marked as either deceased (or living/private if the status is not known), what’s the issue? Genealogists do that all the time to identify distant cousins, it’s not solely a function of LE. What’s known about the person is what’s available in records, so if you think that’s a privacy infringement, disagree with the records being available and not with people creating extended trees based on them.

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Judith Arnn-Knight October 9, 2019 at 9:02 am

Thanks for the info about opting out at FTDNA. I manage an old test for my cousin and when he submitted his test and I filled out the paperwork [2006] there was no interaction with law enforcement. I just went into the profile and disallowed access [the default is “allow”] for his data. I personally would not care but I do not feel I have the right to provide access for him. I know, without asking, he would decline.

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Reblogged this on Krystal's Portfolio and commented:
I think DNA is a cool aspect of True Crime and how it has developed and become more efficient at solving cases over the last few years.

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