In addition to critical funding, making a dent in the cold case epidemic in this country requires increased public sharing of DNA profiles in the popular public genealogy database, GEDmatch. Please help us help them!
One of the biggest misconceptions about allowing law enforcement access to your DNA for solving cold cases is that it’s risky to your privacy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Understanding exactly how the profiles are accessed and used might help you feel better about helping the victims and survivors of violent crimes, many of whom have waited desperately for decades to find answers.
In this article, we’ll talk a lot about GEDmatch, but it goes without saying that FamilyTreeeDNA should be added to your genetic toolbag, too. The more places you offer up your contribution, the better. Note that on FTDNA, all profiles are opted in by default, so it’s not as urgent that you go to any trouble. In GEDmatch, however, you must upload your raw profile from a consumer test company like AncestryDNA or 23andMe and then CHOOSE to allow access for cold case investigations.
What About All Those Horrible Things I Hear?
Let’s be serious for a moment. Choosing to test your DNA is a very personal decision. And once you do, allowing law enforcement to access that profile in order to solve a decades old crime is a scary thing for some people. We get it. Yet, if you look at exactly how open source database at GEDmatch.com works, there is literally no risk of random access or misuse of your raw DNA.
Now, let’s dispel two of the top, scariest myths around the dystopian fear of opting into law enforcement comparisons to your DNA on GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA, shall we?
Myth #1: When law enforcement conducts a search in a genetic genealogy database, they are given special access to participants’ raw DNA profiles.
This is simply not true. Nor is it possible. For an explanation, let’s look at the Terms of Service on the site:
Opt In: We will compare your DNA kit to all other kits in the GEDmatch database to find your matching genetic relatives. Kits in the database include those submitted by users undertaking personal genetic genealogy research, adoptee searches, users (including law enforcement) attempting to identify unidentified human remains, and law enforcement attempting to identify perpetrators of violent crimes. Your kit WILL be compared with kits submitted by law enforcement to identify perpetrators of violent crimes. The operators of GEDmatch encourage everybody to select this option.
The key word is “COMPARED.” This means, what the investigator will see is a list, downloadable as a spreadsheet, with ONLY the profiles that match the unknown subject profile. Also noted is how closely they match in centimorgans (the unit of measurement used in genetic genealogy) along with the user’s email addresses. This is all they will see. Let me break it down:
At no point does anyone ever have access to your raw data, just your public profile listing.
No raw data, no random searches for someone by name or email address. They are only given the definitive matches to the specific case sample being compared.
Myth #2: Law enforcement will arrest a genetic genealogy database participant’s relatives based on the genetic information the participant provided to the database
This is simply not true. By any stretch of the imagination. Even the most cursory study of cases in which investigative genetic genealogy has resulted in arrests would reveal how much went into actually charging a suspect. Thanks to true crime addiction in this country, cases on television abound.
The forensic use of genetic genealogy is only used for cold case investigators to know where to look next. No one is going to take the word of a genealogist in court! What must be presented is a law enforcement-obtained case sample along with a lot of other information. In other words, when I identified a perpetrator in a murder case a few months ago, the client agency then had to work up their due diligence on the suspect, prove he could have done it, and obtain their own surreptitious DNA sample for their internal forensic lab to compare.
We’ve all heard about the infamous Starbucks cup left behind by a suspect, or 3AM trash scoop by detectives, right?
We provide leads. Detectives do the rest. Yes, genetic genealogy is an invaluable tool. And it’s just part of the equation.
Myth #3: China might hack U.S. databases and steal my DNA
I was eating dinner with my mom at her retirement community last month when she introduced me to a man eating at an adjacent table. As she is inclined to do she immediately told him what I did and bragged about some of my recent work. His eyes lit up and he immediately told me that he’d never do a DNA test because the Chinese government might hack the database and steal his data.
“I saw warnings about this on the news.”
I was pretty surprised to hear this and promised to research the subject. The Chinese are pretty ambitious about data procurement, yes; but I’d not heard about this hacking scare and wanted to know more. It’s important to keep up with issues of data access and security when you do what I do.
Here is the truth: Data is a commodity. You might even call personal data “the new oil.” There is no doubt that China has some nasty ambitions about the collection of data. That said, there is little to no chance that they would be able to acquire an individual’s DNA profile from hacking a genealogy database. This is simply not how the comparative genealogy databases work.
Why is this concern out there? Well, China is forcing Tibetans to contribute their DNA to the government. They also designed a data grab for pregnant women by distributing a cheap test worldwide to essentially trick pregnant women into submitting their DNA. Lastly, they also attempted to set up COVID testing labs in the U.S. at no cost in order to have access to the saliva samples of test subjects.
Thankfully the U.S. government saw this last one for what it was. No one took them up on it in the U.S. “This shows the nefarious mindset of the Communist Party of China,” explained National security expert Bill Evanina on 60 Minutes.
So, yes, let’s just say China’s caginess and data domination plans have no bounds.
As most security experts would explain, none of these attempts reveal any actual danger to a public database like GEDmatch. And companies like AncestryDNA and 23andMe spend millions on security. Is there zero danger? Probably not. Is it likely to happen? Also probably not.
The important thing to remember is to discriminate when alerted to security dangers. Who has access to the COVID test you took? Would it be just as easy to take it at home and destroy the test when you’re finished? Absolutely!
There are a lot of other unfortunate misconceptions about the use of DNA databases. I hope you’ll post a comment or send us a question if we can help you feel more at ease about #DNAOptin. Here is a great place to start. In this interview, former FBI Special Agent, Steve Busch discusses his wildly popular presentation at the International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI) on the topic.
If and when you decide to assist in the resolution of cold cases, here is the scoop on how to do it.
3 Easy Steps to DNA Opt In
If you’ve tested your DNA at Ancestry, 23andMe, MyHeritage, FTDNA, or another testing company, download your raw DNA and share it on GEDmatch. Not only will you help law enforcement, you’ll help thousands of adoptees and people searching for biological fathers to boot.
There are three quick and easy steps to this process:
1. Create a free account on GEDmatch.com
2. Download your raw data file from your primary testing site (Ancestry, etc) to your computer.
3. Upload your results from your computer to GEDmatch
The feeling you’ll get knowing that you’re helping your community is priceless.
P.S. If you’d like to hear how murder victim Tina Linn Clouse’s highest match felt helping me to identify her, catch the Family History Detectives® podcast at Season 1, Episode 3: A Quiet Army to hear from adoptee Kristin Cantrill. Your 5.00 Patreon donation to listen goes to the Dean and Tina Linn Clouse Memorial Fund to underwrite John and Jane Doe cases!
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