DNA submissions to GEDmatch – a public source of user-submitted DNA profiles created to help genealogy hobbyists investigate their family trees – have steadily increased since, founder Curtis Rogers told me.
In Rogers’ experience, that possibility excites, rather than concerns, many customers. He routinely receives emails from people who want to post their DNA profile to GEDmatch “so they can assist in catching criminals, including those who might be family members, so that any unsolved cases can be solved, and families involved can get closure.”
CeCe Moore – perhaps the best known scientist in the burgeoning field of genetic genealogy – sees similar sentiments on the popular Facebook page where she posts updates on recently solved cases.
“They want to be part of solving this,” she told me, “They are web sleuths – and perhaps their DNA could be key to cracking a case.”
“People ask us all the time, how can I get my DNA to a place where you guys can solve cases?” Parabon CEO Steve Armentrout told me.
The ethics of public DNA
Home DNA kits are only the latest technology to dramatically increase public participation in monitoring, preventing and even solving crimes.
Websites like NextDoor have taken the neighborhood watch concept – when neighbors work together to prevent crime – online. The app Citizen alerts civilians about 911 calls to crimes underway in their vicinity and allows them to upload video of the incident. And over 700,000 people frequent the cold case discussions on Reddit, an online message board.
Amateur sleuths may jump at the chance of their DNA helping to catch a killer, but there are good reasons to pause and take stock of the ethical concerns raised by this practice.
As more people are swept into genetic databases without their explicit consent, more sensitive personal information will effectively become public. Some day, these genetic profiles could be used by employers or insurance companies to assess the health of individuals, leading to discrimination and stigmatization.
‘I want him caught’
Making one’s DNA available to law enforcement agencies can also create problems of a more intimate nature: Namely, if a suspect is caught because of your DNA, that person is technically part of your biological family. You may become responsible for putting your own relative in jail.
The genetic genealogist Cece Moore finds that doesn’t deter people.
“They want murderers and rapists and serial killers off the street,” she says of the people who talk to her about contributing their DNA to GEDMatch or similar sites. “These people are willing to make sacrifices for that to happen.”
The logic she often hears, Moore says, is: “If my second cousin is a serial killer, I want him caught. I want people to pay for these crimes even if its someone I am close to or I love.”
Research confirms these observations. A study published in the academic journal PLOS Biology in October 2018 found that 79% of 1,578 survey respondents – some of whom had themselves done a home DNA test with 23andMe or other genetic testing site – support police searches of websites like GEDmatch.
Respondents were most supportive of investigations for violent crimes, crimes against children, or missing persons, leading the authors to observe that “perceived invasions of privacy appear to be tolerable when the purpose is to catch violent or particularly depraved offenders.”
The continued success of genetic genealogy in solving cold cases will likely reinforce this public support.
Meanwhile, popular television shows like 20/20 and Dr. Phil have begun to explore genetic genealogy, inspiring an even wider audience to see their own DNA as the potential missing link in an unsolved crime.
With this public support, and barring strict regulation that limits the use of DNA databases to solve crimes, consumer genealogy sites will likely play an ever greater law enforcement role.