Genealogists are super excited about how genealogy is now being used to catch criminals. But have we REALLY taken the time to look at all sides of this new and complex industry?
Genealogy and crime have been in the news together as a couple a lot this year. Whether it’s discussing how our beloved GEDMatch was repurposed into a law enforcement machine, or whether we’re celebrating when those among us who have helped to solve cold cases, there is definitely a spotlight on two seemingly dissimilar topics.
GEDMatch saw an opportunity and updated their terms of service in mid 2018 to include1:
“When you upload Raw Data to GEDmatch, you agree that the Raw Data is one of the following:
- Your DNA;
- DNA of a person for whom you are a legal guardian;
- DNA of a person who has granted you specific authorization to upload their DNA to GEDmatch;
- DNA of a person known by you to be deceased;
- DNA obtained and authorized by law enforcement to either: (1) identify a perpetrator of a violent crime against another individual; or (2) identify remains of a deceased individual; An artificial DNA kit (if and only if: (1) it is intended for research purposes; and (2) it is not used to identify anyone in the GEDmatch database); or
- DNA obtained from an artifact (if and only if: (1) you have a reasonable belief that the Raw Data is DNA from a previous owner or user of the artifact rather than from a living individual; and (2) that previous owner or user of the artifact is known to you to be deceased).’Violent crime’ is defined as homicide or sexual assault.”
Further down, they also included:
“While the results presented on this Site are intended solely for genealogical research, we are unable to guarantee that users will not find other uses, including both current and new genealogical and nongenealogical uses. For example, some of these possible uses of Raw Data, personal information, and/or Genealogy Data by any registered user of GEDmatch include but are not limited to:
- Discovery of identity, even if there is an alias, unidentifiable email address, and other obscuring information;
- Finding genetic matches (individuals that share DNA);
- Paternity and maternity testing;
- Discovery of unknown or unidentified children, parents, or siblings;
- Discovery of other genetic and genealogical relatives, including both known and unknown or unexpected genetic and genealogical relatives;
- Discovery of ethnic background;
- Discovery of a genetic relationship between parents;
- Discovery of biological sex;
- Discovery of medical information or physical traits;
- Obtaining an email address; and/or
- Familial searching by third parties such as law enforcement agencies to identify the perpetrator or a crime, or to identify remains.You understand that future genealogical and nongenealogical uses may be developed, including uses that GEDmatch cannot predict or foresee. If you find any of these current or future uses unacceptable, do not provide Raw Data to GEDmatch, and remove any of your Raw Data already provided to this Site.”
It is our policy to never provide your Genealogy Data, Raw DNA, personal information, or email address to third parties, except as noted herein.”
Upon this change, they gave users three options: 1) Accept the terms, 2) Reject the terms which then deleted registration and removed data from the services, 3) Decide later/do nothing.
I chose the third option in order to preserve my account but I immediately removed the kits I managed on the site. Many of the folks I know thought I was being overreactive about it. I heard:
“But, are you saying that you support criminals being out on the street?”
“Don’t you want to discover information about your ancestors that you wouldn’t if you weren’t on GEDMatch?”
“If you don’t commit crime, you have nothing to worry about.”
Of course I want criminals to be caught. On the other hand, there is a constantly evolving definition of what constitutes a criminal. Yes, equating a wacky arrest of law abiding, rule following citizens in Starbucks to murder and rape isn’t on the same playing field. Yet, there are too many incidences in American history where alleged crimes were perpetrated and alleged criminals were sought, convicted, and later it was discovered that the alleged criminals weren’t criminals at all – it’s why we even have the Innocence Project to begin with.
I simply just wasn’t comfortable with the fact this new industry was emerging, and we, as the experts, hadn’t developed any standards or a clearinghouse about what was appropriate or inappropriate. I imagine most of the perpetrators wouldn’t be testing themselves, it would be their families. So, what was the protocol going to be to contact these folks? I’ve seen how aggressive genealogists are in trying to track down ancestors, so how ruthless would our co-horts be in trying to help apprehend actual criminals through their own families who may not have known or were even involved in the crime to begin with? Would the folks working on the cold cases be actively trying to exonerate people at the same time, or were we just focused on “catching killers?” There were too many questions for me. So click, delete, in the circular bin my kits went.
And then, today happened.
I got a message from a cousin of mine. My cousin had been contacted by a “genetic genealogist” about two kits they managed that were on GEDMatch and I simply couldn’t believe my eyes when my cousin shared this message with me. It was the living, breathing example of why I removed my kits. It has to be read to be believed.
The person who wrote the email claimed to be a “professional genetic genealogist.” Not an actual law enforcement official who is trained in investigative work. The same person requested the names of the parents and grandparents of the kits my cousin managed without providing any insurance regarding how this information was going to be used. Yes, literally. Without a subpoena, a warrant. Nothing. My cousin was just supposed to provide this information out of the goodness of their heart. There was no room for discussion on how law enforcement even believed they had the right person to begin with – just give me what you know.
Then, at the end there was upsell attempt…after telling my cousin that they’re related to a criminal.
I’m not even going to go on a long diatribe about this because this is all I have time for, but we AS A COMMUNITY, need to gather our collective edges. Our curiosity and knowledge lead to some amazing tools when it comes to genetic genealogy, but THIS? THIS? This is NOT ok. Not at all. We can try to catch all the killers we want, but we are doing nothing but “stop and frisk” to the relatives of people when we send messages like this to folks.
So, let me go ahead and start the real dialogue on this because we are PAST needing it.
8 thoughts on “You want what? I’ll pass.”
I can imagine the definition of what constitutes a crime in the future, will also change, and that’s scary. I can see both sides, but that would be a real shocker to receive a message like that!
I was going to contact you regarding something along this line….
That is so not cool! I think I will have to pull the kits I manage off the all of GEDMatch…wow. Thanks for sharing, this Nicka.
I completely agree with you. Law enforcement participating in genetic genealogy is unacceptable. It will lead to the demise of an incredible tool for genealogical good.
Gedmatch has always been used to find criminals who have raped someone and created a child why not ones who may not have resulted in a child?
I am generally in favor of sharing information and truth. I can also sometimes be naive about biased use of said information. Still one thing that struck me about this email, was that there was no proof of the individuals status as a “professional”. I don’t even know if such proof exists. Maybe it should. An accompanying letter or note from a law enforcement agency would go a long way in authenticating the genealogist’s claims. Yes, people can lie and practice deception, but what are the odds. Each person must weigh both sides of the issue, and decide for their self. It would be helpful to list the possible positive and negative consequences of cooperating, in the letter. Personally I am much more comfortable with a contact like this, as an email, rather than as a phone contact. An email address is linked to each kit. Phone numbers are not. I also prefer written communications. My surprise by such a contact would probably prevent me from thinking clearly. I don’t think well on my feet as it is. Written information can be reviewed. I can take my time to think things through before I respond. I do not feel threatened by such use of my DNA, either for myself or for my family. I do try to keep living people out of my published trees, but I will share that information with contacts/matches. I am aware that DNA is not absolute proof of identity. There are circumstances that alter DNA or confuse identity: transplant recipients, Identical twins, chimeras. This is a good question and I appreciate the respectful discussion of the issue.
Thanks for writing this Nicka – it’s something I’ve been struggling with ever since I heard about GEDmatch being used to identify the Golden State Killer. Until there is proper legal oversight of the process my kits on GEDmatch will remain privatized.
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