Monday 30 April 2018

GEDmatch, Ysearch and the Golden State Killer

This is a rough and ready compilation of useful links in the Golden State Killer case which I am updating and re-organising on a regular basis as further information becomes available. Suggestions for additional links are welcome.
The coastline of the Golden State of California taken from a viewpoint near Bixby Bridge in June 2017.
There have been a lot of debates in the various genetic genealogy Facebook groups in the last few days about the implications for genealogy following the revelation that GEDmatch was used to narrow down the search for suspects in the hunt for a rapist and serial killer in California known as the Golden State Killer.

I've shared my views in this article for MIT Technology Review:

The brave new world of genetic genealogy

See also my short interview with Rosemary Collins of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine

What are the risks of using DNA websites in criminal investigations?

I've provided below a compilation of the most useful links for further reading.

Articles by and interviews with genealogists

The moral maze of DNA testing by Philip Grass

Genealogy and the golden state killer by Leah Larkin, The DNA Geek

A comparison of GEDmatch and the FBI's CODIS database by Leah Larkin, The DNA Geek

The bull in the DNA china shop by Judy Russell, The Legal Genealogist

Dilemma: was it wrong to catch killer with DNA by Peter Calver, Lost Cousins newsletter

My fourth cousins, the Golden State Killer, and the Fourth Amendment by Laurie Pratt, Three Branch Tree

DNA Security: my thoughts in the wake of the Golden State Killer development by Brianne Kirkpatrick, Watershed DNA

A genealogical tragedy of the commons by Jacqui Stevens

How to find a killer using DNA and genealogy by Kitty Cooper

The Golden State Killer and DNA by Roberta Estes, DNAeXplained

The price of sharing  by Judy Russell, The Legal Genealogist

The secrets in your spit: using genetic genealogy to solve cold cases by Paul Woodbury, LegacyTree Genealogists

Extreme Genes Podcast interview with Paul Woodbury of Legacy Tree Genealogists Paul expresses concerns about the use of GEDmatch in cold cases

Extreme Genes interview with CeCe Moore CeCe explains the methodology she used to identify a suspect in a cold case murder and discusses the ethics of using GEDmatch to solve crimes

Meet the woman investigating cold case murders from her couch Megyn Kelly from USA Today interviews CeCe Moore

Exclusive: the woman behind the scenes who helped capture the Golden State Killer by Matthias Gafni, The Mercury News

She helped cracked the Golden State Killer case. Here's what she's going to do next by Heather Murphy, The New York Times

Articles by academics

The ethics of catching criminals using their family's DNA. Editorial. Nature.

How lucky was the genetic investigation into the Golden State Killer? by Graham Coop and Doc Edge, The Coop Lab.

Is your genome really your own? The public and forensic value of DNA by Nathan Scudder and Denise McNevin, The Conversation

A chat with the geneticist who predicted how the state may have tracked down the Golden State Killer Jon Cohen interviews Yaniv Erlich for Science

Is it ethical to use genealogy data to solve crimes? (£) by Benjamin E. Berkman, Wynter K. Miller and Christine Grady, Annals of Internal Medicine. 

Experts outline ethics issues with use of genealogy to solve crimes by Carolyn Crist, Reuters. A commentary on the above paper by Berkman et al. Reuters Health News.

Genealogy databases and the future of criminal investigation by Natalie Ram, Christi J. Guerrini and
Amy L. McGuire. Science Magazine. See also the interview with Natalie Ram and Amy L McGuire on Science Friday.

Re-identification of genomic data using long range familial searches (preprint) by Yaniv Erlich, Tal Shor, Shai Carmi and Itsik Pe'er. BioRxiv

Perspective: Sociogenetic risks — ancestry DNA testing, third-party identity, and protection of privacy by Thomas May. New England Journal of Medicine

Crowdsourced and crowdfunded: the future of forensic DNA by Nathan Scudder, Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences.

Forensic genealogy: some serious concerns by Denise Syndercombe Court, Forensic Science International Genetics 

The Golden State Killer investigation and the nascent field of forensic genealogy by Chris Phillips, Forensic Science International Genetics

Should police detectives have total access to public genetic databases? by Stephanie Fullerton and Rori Rohlfs, Leapsmag

Newspaper and magazine articles

DNA databases: biology stripped bare by Karlin Lillington, Irish Times

The creepy, dark side of DNA databases by Vera Eidelman of the American Civil Liberties Union writing in The Washington Post

Tentative thoughts on the use of genealogy sites to solve crimes by Orin Kerr, Reason

DNA website had unwitting role in Golden State manhunt by Kirsten Brown, Bloomberg News. Interesting background information on the people behind GEDmatch.

How a tiny website became the police's go-to genealogy database by Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic

DNA detectives are searching for killers in your family tree by Kirsten Brown, Bloomberg

Cold cases heat up as law enforcement uses genetics to solve past crimes by Diana Fine Maron, Scientific American

The unlikely crime-fighter cracking decades old murders. A genealogist? by Justin Jouvenal, Washington Post

Police can now track killers using relatives' DNA - but should they? by Chelsea Whyte, New Scientist

Background on the Golden State Killer case

For further information on the case I suggest reading the following article on NPR.

In hunt for Golden State Killer, investigators uploaded his DNA to genealogy site

Make sure too that you watch the interview with Paul Holes, the investigator involved with this case which is included on the above link.

There is an additional interview with Paul Holes providing further details in a New York Times podcast on 4th May 2018:

This article explains how GEDmatch was used:

Here’s the ‘open-source’ genealogy DNA website that helped crack the Golden State Killer case

The US TV programme ABC 20/20 aired a special edition To Catch A Killer on 4th May on the DeAngelo case:

How DNA from family members helped solve the Golden State Killer case 

In this ABC 20/20 Extra segment CeCe Moore provides an excellent explanation of the methodology used by genetic genealogists in unknown parentage cases. This technique was used in the Golden State Killer case:

How investigators built a genetic genealogy leading to Golden State Killer arrest

The 20/20 Extra segment is also available on Twitter

This article from the Washington Post has a good overview of the genealogical research that was done in this case:

To find alleged Golden State Killer, investigators first found his great-great-great grandparents

This is a good article by Sarah Zhang in The Atlantic covering some of the ethical issues:

How a genealogy website led to the alleged Golden State Killer

Some members of the genetic genealogy community are cited in the New York Times article which also discusses some of the ethical concerns:

The Golden State Killer is tracked through a thicket of DNA, and experts shudder

The search warrant information was released on 1st June 2018. See pages 49 and 50 for the details of how the police obtained surreptitious DNA samples (apparently perfectly legally) from DeAngelo's car door handle and from a tissue taken from his dustbin (trash can):

The public Y-DNA database Ysearch was also used in the Golden State Killer investigation and that search resulted in an innocent person in an Oregon nursing home being ensnared into the investigation. See the report on the Associated Press website:

Serial killer search led to wrong man in 2017

It has since been revealed that the police took out a sub poena to access the customer's account at Family Tree DNA:

A DNA testing company was forced to reveal a customer’s identity for the Golden State Killer case. It turned out to be a false lead

The daughter of the man in the Oregon nursing home has spoken out to say that her father was happy  he was able to help with the investigation:

Daughter says local man whose DNA was tested in Golden State Killer case would do it again

Ysearch has previously been used in two other cases which resulted in the false incrimination of an innocent person.

A New Orleans filmmaker by the name of Michael Usry was falsely implicated in the 1996 murder of Angie Dodge as a result of a weak match found in the then public Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation Y-DNA database. The police were told that a 34/35 Y-STR match indicated that it was "very close to a 100 percent" that the suspect's name was Usry.

New Orleans filmmaker cleared in cold case murder

In reality, even exact matches at 37 markers can indicate shared ancestry dating back for several thousand years. There are also some false positive 37/37 marker matches as a result of convergence.

As a result of this incident the valuable Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation website was shut down by AncestryDNA.

RIP Sorenson - a crushing loss by Roberta Estes

In an investigation into the murder of Sarah Yarborough a Y-DNA match was said to indicate that the suspect's surname was Fuller.

DNA links 1991 killing to Colonial era family

In an awkward coincidence there was a William Fuller who was a colleague of the victim's father. His daughter was the best friend of the victim. In this case no DNA testing was done on the family members but his name was made public and must have led to some unwelcome gossip in his local community. The killer has never been found.

Cops hope Colonial ties reheat cold case
According to the book I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara's Y-STR database was also used in the search for the Golden State Killer:

AncestryDNA discontinued Y-DNA and mtDNA testing back in June 2014 and closed down their Y-DNA and mtDNA matching databases in September 2014: announcement regarding discontinuation of Y-DNA and mtDNA tests.

UK position
Although these searches took place in America, Professor Denise Syndercombe Court, Professor of Forensic Genetics at Kings College London, has suggested that the same methodology could be deployed in the UK. See the following article in the Daily Mail:

UK police could now start using genealogy DNA databases to catch criminals despite ethical concerns after US police used one to snare the 'Golden State Killer', says top forensics expert

My view is that it is unlikely that such searches would be used in the UK. There are not enough British people in the GEDmatch database to make a search worthwhile. Such searches are also likely be in breach of article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, I am not a lawyer and we are in uncharted territory so I would not rule out the possibility.

The floodgates have opened
The Golden State Killer case has now opened the floodgates. Parabon has announced a new genetic genealogy service for law enforcement and has already "screened samples for nearly 100 agencies":

Parabon® announces Snapshot® Genetic Genealogy Service for law enforcement

Parabon uses an Illumina CytoSNP-850K chip:

The citizen scientist who finds killers from her couch A profile of CeCe Moore, Parabon's genetic genealogist, by Antonio Regalado and Brian Alexander, MIT Technology Review

Second success for the DNA Project
The DNA Doe Project has announced its second success with the identification of Lyle Stevik:

Dead man found in Washington State, who had ties to N.M., ID'd through DNA

The first success for the Parabon genetic genealogy service
The Parabon genetic genealogy unit led by CeCe Moore has announced its first success with the arrest of a suspect in a 1987 doubler murder

A double murder from 1987 was just solved thanks to the genealogy website used for the Golden State Killer by Peter Aldhous, BuzzFeed News

The recording of the press conference Kiro7 News on Facebook

The coming wave of murders solved by genealogy by Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic

GEDmatch has now been used in seven cases

Genealogists turn to family trees to cousins' DNA and family trees to crack five more cold cases by Heather Murphy, New York Times

Opinion within the genetic genealogy community has been divided. Many people are happy to have their DNA used to solve a crime and put a potential killer behind bars. Others are uncomfortable with the prospect of police intrusion into a genealogy database. It is up to each individual to make their own informed decision.

It is particularly important that if you are uploading kits to GEDmatch on behalf of relatives you make them fully aware of all the possible uses of their data. If you do not have their consent I recommend changing the settings and making their kits research use only so that they are not participating in the matching database. The same applies to kits uploaded to Ysearch.

For information on changing settings at GEDmatch see this article by David Moberly:

Protecting your privacy on GEDmatch

See also my blog post dated 21st May 2018 on updates to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy at GEDmatch


Worried and probably paranoid. said...

Hi Debbie
This may seem paranoid, but considering the historical use of IBM’s datacards by Hitler, making DNA results accessible to government agencies when people like Trump are in charge, is a bit scary.

Debbie Kennett said...

These DNA results on GEDmatch are effectively available to any government in the world which is a somewhat scary prospect. However, the reality is that the majority of GEDmatch users are in the US so familial searches are not likely to be successful for police forces in other countries. However, bear in mind that it is not the DNA itself that is particularly informative. It was the extensive genealogical research which identified the suspects. I suspect the majority of people who got embroiled in this investigation never even had any data on GEDmatch. I think if a government wants to use DNA for nefarious purposes they would have more effective ways of getting the population to participate than relying on a website run in their spare time by a couple of genealogists.