DNA and Law Enforcement

Many people have asked me about the use of their DNA by law enforcement. Some are concerned, others just curious. So here is how it works.

First of all, there are only two commercial databases where law enforcement is allowed in.  Both of those, GEDmatch and Family Tree DNA (ftDNA), require you to opt in to that usage and inform you about it in their terms. There is also one non-profit – DNA Justice – just for Law Enforcement, where you can choose to opt in to be informed if your DNA solved a case.

In order for your DNA to be helpful for solving cases, you have to upload your DNA test done elsewhere to any of those sites, although ftDNA will also do the actual DNA testing and even has some additional tests. In fact, I have a review of the great new Roberta Estes book about that site coming soon. Remember, Law Enforcement only uses your DNA for cousin matching, and perhaps ethnicity, but does not have access to your actual raw DNA data.

If you opt in to helping solve cases on those sites, then your DNA plus your family tree could be used to identify any 2nd or 3rd cousins that are unidentified bodies, rapists, or murderers. Unless you are a genealogist, you probably don’t know all your cousins, and there can even be a few unknown out-of-wedlock ones. I have discovered more of those on my own tree than I would have expected.

So why are so many reluctant to opt in? Fear of reprisals from the criminal? (they don’t know about you, so no worries) or just the reluctance to be a tattle tale? We have all been trained to guard our online privacy so perhaps that is where the discomfort comes from.

I explained the methodology of using genetic genealogy for identifications in a post (click here) I wrote just after the Golden State killer was found. It is the same set of techniques used to help adoptees. The important thing to understand is that genetic genealogy is just used as a tip to narrow down the possibilities. Then Law Enforcement collects the actual DNA of the suspect(s) and compares it to what they have for the perp before any arrests are made.

In the case of unidentified bodies, the trick is to get enough DNA from the degraded remains to create a DNA profile similar to a test kit and thus usable on those sites, The DNA Justice site says “There is so much work still to be done, with more than 14,000 listings in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS) alone.” Click here to read a few of the success stories on the DNA Doe site to see how important this work is.

Finally if you want an inside look at how this work is done read the book  I Know Who You Are written by Barbara Rae-Venter. This compelling autobiographical book includes the details of how the Golden State Killer was found with genetic genealogy.

Here’s hoping more of you opt into helping out by uploading your autosomal DNA test results to these sites!

Finally, a Reason to Get Ancestry Pro Tools!

Ancestry has released a new feature that many of us have been eagerly waiting for: how much DNA your matches share with each other and the estimated relationship between them. This can help when a new match has no tree, for example, if their sibling or parent has one. Read on for a description of my first experiments with this tool.

Most Mondays I go look at my new DNA matches on Ancestry. Typically I first click Unviewed and then click Common Ancestors.

The buttons I click (added arrows are mine)

If no matches come up, then I unclick the Common Ancestors button in order to see all the new matches. Next I sort them by date to see the most recent first. Sometimes I first pick one parent or change the range of cM to view (via the button called Shared DNA). Then I scan the resulting list. I typically click on the new matches with trees and the most DNA. I find that if you contact people when they have just received their results, they are more likely to respond.

I had a wonderful surprise when I clicked on a new DNA relative’s name to go to their match page with me: a message informing me that if I upgraded to the Pro Tools I could see how my matches were related to each other including the cM. Of course I upgraded, only an extra $10 per month. By the way, as they are just rolling out this feature it is a bit slow today from all of us trying it out.

My match with Gary turned up two distant relatives from different lines, perhaps I can figure out where he fits in

Now my page for that new match looks like the above. Note that you can click on the projected relationship to get the full explanation including unweighted DNA and longest segment just like on a match page.

However on the shared matches page my colored dots have changed to squares with the first letter of the group. Not sure how I feel about that change. A benefit is that it shows you how many people are in that group when you go to the edit groups. At least the colors are almost the same. On the trees and ethnicity pages it is the same colored dot as before, for now.

A few glitches occurred. I was not able save the new notes I made from the shared matches page. I can only save them from the tree and ethnicity pages. Also it was easier to set the colored dot group on those pages, as the save from the shared matches page seemed delayed.

Continue reading

All My GEDmatch Articles

GEDmatch is one of my favorite sets of genetic genealogy tools but it can be hard to get started with. I have done many presentations over the years attempting to help people master the basics there, most recently for Family Tree University (click here). Plus I wrote a GEDmatch Basics article for their magazine (click here) which explains all the column headings on the one-to-many report. [UPDATE 15 Apr 2024: Click here for the interview I did for the FTU podcast.] Impact-Site-Verification: d124adea-1323-4f60-a2fb-f1fdf846aa56

Over the past 12 years I have written many posts about GEDmatch, most of which are still useful. So I decided to make a new tag – GEDmatch tools – which brings up just my posts that explain a specific tool. Now I can see which tools I still need to write about!

Here is the list of my articles in reverse chronological order (click any title to go to that post):

GEDmatch: What’s New and my Basics Talk

The people behind the current GEDmatch have been working hard to improve its usability and its appearance. Tom Osypian, the QIAGEN GEDmatch Product Manager, gave a talk at the recent Rootstech about what’s new there. I hope some of you went to that! I was sad not to make it this year, other than virtually.

Meanwhile on this Thursday March 7, I will be giving an updated version of my talk on GEDmatch Basics for Family Tree University.  This webinar is designed to help the new user understand how to use the terrific tools on that site.

Now to list the main new features.

  • Most every function now has a drop down list of your kit numbers
    (cut and paste still works)
  • You can import your family tree from the FamilySearch website if you have an account there
  • You can click over to the People who match both of two kits function from the one to many.
  • Emails are now partially concealed.
  • Use of computerized collecting will shut down your account.

Personally my favorite new feature is the click point called Match on each match in the one to many tool. That takes you to a pre-filled form for the person you did the one-to-many for to compare them to the person in the resulting list. This gives you a quick way to see which of your relatives on GEDmatch match the new match, and thus what family line they are likely from.

I also tried the import of our family tree from FamilySearch for my brother’s kit and it worked beautifully. One small problem was that my Norwegian grandmother has a foreign character in her middle name so she came over as ? Lee (just her surname). I have reported that problem.

Showing the first three characters of the email plus the provider seems a good compromise to increase privacy while allowing you to see when kits belong to the same person. Clicking on that partial email address takes you to the user lookup page for that user which gives you the pseudonym or name of the kit owner, their email address, and their GEDCOM numbers if there are any

As to computerized collecting, if you are a programmer, it may seem efficient to write yourself a script to scrape the information you want but computers are too fast and that bogs down the GEDmatch servers and thus affects everyone else’s response time.

Using AI for Genealogy by Steve Little

One of the most unusual talks at the recent i4GG conference (videos coming soon) was the one about the use of AI for genealogy by Steve Little, the AI program director for the National Genealogical Society (NGS).  I learned that it was how you phrased your question that could lead to more accurate answers, e.g. “you are a professional genealogist … ” I found out that AI, particularly the paid versions, could extract text from documents, even handwritten ones and translate in context. Here is my favorite slide from that talk. Personally my first impression of ChatGPT had been that it was great at sounding good while making stuff up.

Slide from Steve Little’s talk, used by permission

Steve will be speaking at RootsTech at 8 am Thursday this week and will also be available at the NGS booth as per his post on FaceBook.

Amusingly, in my own talk about using bioancestry to solve unknown parentage cases, I had experimented with using AI generated images to illustrate a few of my points. For example, when I asked the deepAI image generator for a Hungarian violinist I got this image whose hands are imperfect, but it still adds pizzazz to the slide.

No sooner has my favorite DNA conference (i4GG) ended, than it is time to get ready for Rootstech! No I won’t be there in person this year, too much to do to prepare for our move to Connecticut. Hope everyone has a great time. I will attend virtually, so if you are logged in there, you can click here to see if you are related to me! As all my ancestors are fairly recent immigrants (earliest 1860s), I have only 434 relatives at Rootstech, the closest being a fifth cousin. Oh well.