Legal Affairs

Investigative Genealogy has now Cleared an Innocent Man of Murder

A man who spent 20 years behind bars after being wrongly convicted of rape and murder, making him the first wrongfully convicted person cleared of a crime through the use of investigative genealogy. Now experts in this emerging field say the technique could be used to exonerate others who may have also been wrongly convicted.

Details may be found in an article by Salvador Hernandez in the BuzzFeed News web site at: http://bit.ly/2xQh0jI.

Are You Unknowingly Forfeiting Your Genetic Privacy Rights?

From an article by Katherine M. Silverman, published in the Mondaq.com web site:

“The issue of genetic privacy is getting a lot of attention in the media lately, mainly due to the role DNA has played in identifying suspects in prominent “cold cases” like that of the Golden State Killer. But use of these “genetic genealogy” tools has raised concerns from privacy advocates who fear that genetic information shared on public genealogy databases could be misused. While “oversharing” personal information on social media has become par for the course, it’s important to think carefully about what information you’re publishing on the internet and who might have access to that information in the future.”

Also:

U.S. Supreme Court Blocks 2020 Census Citizenship Query

From an Associated Press news story:

“In two politically charged rulings, the Supreme Court dealt a huge blow Thursday to efforts to combat the drawing of electoral districts for partisan gain and put a hold on the Trump administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.”

You can read the full story at: http://bit.ly/31UpdRP.

For more information about the arguments that led up to today’s Supreme Court decision, see my earlier articles about this issue by starting at: http://bit.ly/2ZUtbI9.

My thanks to the several newsletter readers who wrote to tell me about today’s court decision.

Announcing the Coalition for Genetic Data Protection

TheHill.com reports, “Genetic testing companies are forming a new coalition on best practices for handling DNA information and to promote the industry in Washington as lawmakers put more scrutiny on their privacy practices.” The new organization’s plan is to create reasonable voluntary guidelines for DNA privacy before lawmakers create their own less palatable laws that benefit no one.

As of January, more than 26 million consumers have added their DNA to the four leading commercial ancestry and health databases, believed to be Ancestry, 23andMe, MyHeritage, and Family Tree DNA, according to MIT Technology Review. However, the recent use by law enforcement use of the databases that is contrary to the stated purposes of these genealogy databases has created a lot of controversy.

The Legal Power of Genealogy in Colonial America

By the time he was 18, George Washington was a competent genealogist — and he had to be. In Washington’s Virginia, family was a crucial determinant of social and economic status, and freedom.

How did Washington understand his family, and what can that tell us about the world in which he lived and played such a significant role? Thanks to a document long ignored by biographers and historians alike, we now know how fully he grasped the basic truth that genealogy is power.

Prince Edward Island Government to Open Up Adoption Records in Fall

Prince Edward Island’s Minister of Social Development and Housing said the province will be bringing forward legislation in the fall to make adoption records more freely available.

Currently, only non-identifying information regarding adoptions are made available to adopted adult children or birth parents of adopted children, unless both parties consent to the release of identifying information. However, the province’s consultation report proposed more open access to records but also recommended individuals have options for vetoing the ability of grown adopted children or birth parents to have access to their information.

3 Arrested in France for Looting the Archives of Libraries Throughout Europe

The following is a press release from Europol:

With the support of Europol, the French National Police (OCBC – National Unit in charge of Cultural goods trafficking) and the Spanish Guardia Civil (UCO) have dismantled an organised crime group suspected of stealing maps in the archival collections of libraries throughout Europe.

On 20 May, 6 properties were searched simultaneously in France and Spain and 3 suspects arrested. 3 vehicles and €6 000 in cash have also been seized.

How Your Privacy Will Be Protected in the 2020 Census

Every ten years the U.S. Census Bureau conducts a nationwide survey that sets the terms for the country’s democracy. The questionnaire yields rich data, including people’s names, street addresses, ages, races, ethnicities, and other details. People’s responses help determine dynamics of power, such as how seats are apportioned in the House of Representatives, where voting districts get divided, and which communities receive federal funds.

But the bureau, tasked with releasing summaries of the results while simultaneously protecting people’s privacy, faces a Catch-22. “Every time you publish a statistic you leak information about that confidential database,” as Simson Garfinkel, a computer scientist with the bureau, told a Census advisory committee in May.

You can learn all about the privacy procedures of the 2020 U.S. Census in an article by Robert Hackett and an accompanying video in the Fortune web site at: http://fortune.com/2019/05/25/census-security-privacy/.

The Reasons Why GEDmatch Recently Changed Its Terms of Service

GEDmatch is a popular genealogy web site that contains more than 1.2 million completed DNA kits. It was used by many genealogists and, more recently, by law enforcement officials, most of whom were working on “cold cases” involving violent crimes, such as rape and murder. Use of GEDmatch first helped solve the so-called Golden State Killer case last April through a new forensic technique known as genetic genealogy. That case was soon followed by a number of other identification of the perpetrators of past crimes.

However, there was one problem: GEDMatch’s own terms of service didn’t allow police to use the site for assault cases or any other crimes that involve less serious crimes. Even worse, legal issues arose because the site did not have the informed consent of its users to make an exception to the terms of service.

GEDmatch Implements Required Opt-In for Law Enforcement Matching

GEDmatch is an open data personal genomics database and genealogy website founded in 2010 by Curtis Rogers and John Olson. Its main purpose is to help “amateur and professional researchers and genealogists,” including adoptees searching for birth parents. However, it recently has also become “the de facto DNA and genealogy database for all of law enforcement,” according to The Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang.

GEDmatch recently gained a lot of publicity after it was used by law enforcement officials to identify a suspect in the Golden State Killer case in California. Other law enforcement agencies started using GEDmatch for violent crimes, making it one of the most powerful tools available for identifying “cold case” criminals.

Sadly, the same site also has generated a lot of controversy involving the lack of privacy of personal DNA information, both for the people who uploaded their own DNA data and especially for the relatives of the uploaders whose DNA information also was included without their permission and usually without their knowledge. Such blatant disregard for personal privacy may be a violation of privacy laws in many countries.

The GEDmatch owners have now tightened the web site’s rules on privacy. The result is expected to make it much more difficult for law enforcement agencies to find suspects.

Republishing Obituaries: Is it Piracy?

Who owns the copyrights of obituaries? A recent court case in Canada may have far-reaching implications for genealogists in many countries. While the recent court case applies only to Canada, similar copyright issues exist in many other countries.

Thomson v. Afterlife Network Inc., 2019 FC 545, is a (Canadian) Federal Court decision in which the Court considers the existence of copyright in obituaries used in an e-commerce context.

The case involves a class action lawsuit claiming that posted obituaries and photographs posted in local funeral home web sites were copied and republished by the plaintiff and other class members without the permission of the true copyright holders. The suit then claims that the defendant infringed the copyright and the moral rights of the class members.

Delaware may Increase the Embargo Periods for Birth, Marriage, and Death Records

The following article was written by Jan Meisels Allen, Chairperson of the IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee:

As previously reported in the IAJGS Records Access Alert, a bill before the Delaware House will increase the embargo periods for birth marriage and death records. On May 7, it was amended and passed by House. The embargo periods were further extended. The bill now would extend embargo periods to:

  • Birth from 72 years to 100 years
  • Marriage from 40 to 70 years an
  • Death records from 40 to 50 years

The original bill maybe accessed at: https://legis.delaware.gov/BillDetail/47308.

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Archivist Accused of Stealing Rare Books

A 17th century Geneva Bible was one of the hundreds of rare books authorities said were stolen from a Pittsburgh library as part of a 20-year-long theft scheme, is back home. The Bible, published in 1615, was traced to the American Pilgrim Museum in Leiden, about 45 miles (70 kilometers) from Amsterdam in the Netherlands, said FBI agent Robert Jones.

It was among more than 300 rare books, maps, plate books, atlases and more that were discovered missing from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh last year. A former archivist at the library and a rare book dealer are accused of stealing books valued at more than $8 million

You can read more about this theft in an article by Patty Coller in the WKBN News web site at: http://bit.ly/2IK796j.

Ancestry.com Sued for ‘Misleading’ Customers About DNA Data

Genealogy information provider Ancestry.com has a “longstanding practice” of failing to get sufficient informed consent agreements from customers who submit medical and DNA information, a new lawsuit alleges.

Lori Collett sued the Utah-based company’s subsidiaries—Ancestry.com DNA LLC and Ancestry.com Inc.—for allegedly “misleading and deceiving patients in California and across the country about what Ancestry was actually doing with their DNA.”

Bloomberg news has a brief radio report about the lawsuit at http://bit.ly/2VAn7Gt.

Reclaim the Records Launches its Biggest Genealogy-Related Lawsuit Ever

Reclaim The Records seeks the first-ever public access to 1.6 million death certificates for New Yorkers who died between 1949-1968 and asks court to overturn recently-enacted restrictions on access.

You can read the full announcement at: http://bit.ly/2GtMCiO.

Has Investigative Genealogy Become the Wild, Wild West?

The marriage of genealogy and DNA being used to solve “cold case” crimes is receiving a lot of publicity these days. On the one hand, it is an excellent tool for solving murders and other violent crimes. On the other hand, there are concerns about personal privacy, government “Big Brother” privacy issues, abuse by police and others that have access to the various databases, and about simple human errors that can cause innocent people to be incarcerated or even executed.

NOTE: Click here to read about one recent example of an innocent man being arrested and incarcerated because of mistaken identity in a DNA test. Luckily, in this case, the error was discovered by a suspicious public defender and the innocent man was released from custody within a few days. However, will other mistaken identity cases be rectified so quickly?

Is DNA Evidence Reliable?

DNA has become a major tool for use by police in solving cold cases of murder and other violent crimes. In the past year, about 50 cold cases have been solved nationwide using public genealogy websites. But is this evidence alone reliable?

James H. Manahan, J.D., has written an article in the Lake County (Minnesota) News-Chronicle that tells why DNA evidence alone can be misleading. Manahan cautions that DNA is a great tool but also must always be used in conjunction with old-fashioned police work.

Reclaim The Records Wins Again! New York State Department of Health Index to Marriages to Become Available to the Public.

The following is a short extract from the Reclaim the Records web site:

GENEALOGISTS WIN IN COURT!

Index to millions of New York marriage records reclaimed!

Non-profit organization Reclaim The Records wins our fourth Freedom of Information lawsuit, this time for the 1966-2017 New York State marriage index

Greetings from Reclaim The Records! We’re that scrappy little activist group of genealogists, historians, journalists, and open government advocates, fighting for better public access to government-held genealogical and historical documents. And today, we’re pleased to inform you that we just won our fourth lawsuit! We fought the New York State Department of Health (NYS DOH) for the index to marriages performed in the state of New York post-1965, and after seven months, a judge has now ruled in our favor.

Is That Book Still Under Copyright?

Genealogists use old books more often than most other people. Indeed, we also want to take excerpts from an old book and publish those excerpts as part of our own family’s genealogy. However, is that legal? Does the book still enjoy copyright protection?

Under U.S. laws, the answer is simple for books published prior to 1924: the book is now in the public domain (not copyrighted). For books, films, and other works published in 1924 or later, however, the question quickly becomes complicated.

Anything published in 1924 will remain under copyright until the year 2020, anything published in 1925 will remain under copyright until the year 2021, and so on.

U.S. Supreme Court Expands Scope of Census Citizenship Question Case

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Friday that it is expanding the scope of the case against the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, agreeing to decide whether the move violated the Constitution.

The move comes after a federal judge in California ruled earlier this month that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose agency oversees the census, violated the Constitution’s Enumeration Clause.