Aug 18, 2023

Police are Getting DNA Data from People Who Think They Opted Out

Forensic genetic genealogists skirted GEDmatch privacy rules by searching users who explicitly opted out of sharing DNA with law enforcement.

Form an article by Jordan Smith published in

Cece Moore, an actress and director-turned-genetic genealogist, stood behind a lectern at New Jersey’s Ramapo College in late July. Propelled onto the national stage by the popular PBS show “Finding Your Roots,” Moore was delivering the keynote address for the inaugural conference of forensic genetic genealogists at Ramapo, one of only two institutions of higher education in the U.S. that offer instruction in the field. It was a new era, Moore told the audience, a turning point for solving crime, and they were in on the ground floor. “We’ve created this tool that can accomplish so much,” she said.

Genealogists like Moore hunt for relatives and build family trees just as traditional genealogists do, but with a twist: They work with law enforcement agencies and use commercial DNA databases to search for people who can help them identify unknown human remains or perpetrators who left DNA at a crime scene.

The field exploded in 2018 after the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo as the notorious Golden State Killer, responsible for more than a dozen murders across California. DNA evidence collected from a 1980 double murder was analyzed and uploaded to a commercial database; a hit to a distant relative helped a genetic genealogist build an elaborate family tree that ultimately coalesced on DeAngelo. Since then, hundreds of cold cases have been solved using the technique. Moore, among the field’s biggest evangelists, boasts of having personally helped close more than 200 cases.

The practice is not without controversy. It involves combing through the genetic information of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in search of a perpetrator. And its practitioners operate without meaningful guardrails, save for “interim” guidance published by the Department of Justice in 2019.

The last five years have been like the “Wild West,” Moore acknowledged, but she was proud to be among the founding members of the Investigative Genetic Genealogy Accreditation Board, which is developing professional standards for practitioners. “With this incredibly powerful tool comes immense responsibility,” she solemnly told the audience. The practice relies on public trust to convince people not only to upload their private genetic information to commercial databases, but also to allow police to rifle through that information. If you’re doing something you wouldn’t want blasted on the front page of the New York Times, Moore said, you should probably rethink what you’re doing. “If we lose public trust, we will lose this tool.” 

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