11 January 2012

Unexpected use of DNA

Note: Personal opinions follow.

There is a heated discussion going on right now in the genetic genealogy community. After a story was aired on a local television station, Dick Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter carried the story to genealogists.The discussion spilled over into the general public after CNN and London’s Daily Mail carried the story.

Police asked for assistance from a well-known forensic and genetic genealogist in analyzing a DNA sample from a 1991, King County, Washington, case where a sixteen year old girl was murdered. Some of the information, as reported, is incorrect. Other blog articles and comments in the online stories above are correcting some of those errors. No matter how carefully a knowledgeable person tries to phrase probabilities with DNA results, those explanations are difficult for the less-experienced to understand. Even if a reporter gets it right, editors make changes without truly understanding how the meaning of the words were changed, headline writers are trying to catch your attention with the most sensational phrasing. And readers can get something different than either the expert, the reporter, or the editor meant to convey.

Genealogy DNA project administrators are worried relatives will resist testing for genealogical purposes if they think their DNA results will be used by the police when the DNA tester is not remotely related to a crime.

Some see this as another incidence of government agencies trampling our rights to privacy and freedom from unwarranted search and seizure.

Here are some facts to consider:
For the most part, people making comments online have no detailed information about what was actually done — how many markers were tested, how closely did they match, exactly what was done. Without understanding these undisclosed facts of the investigation no real evaluation of the process can be made.

We don't know enough about the DNA markers used for genealogy and exactly what matches mean. Some projects have testers who match exactly on 67 or more markers when we know they don't have a common ancestor within the last several hundred years. That same project can also include testers showing two mutations likely occurred between a father and a son. One DNA project administrator reported three mutations between a father-son pair that tested.

Genealogical DNA databases are NOT representative of the population at large. DNA databases include only those who have self-selected themselves for testing.

Those self-selectors can provide any information they want about names and ancestors. Many provide no information at all. Some may have provided alias information just because they wanted to protect themselves from possible misuse of their DNA results. I'm not recommending this. If more people do this the databases will become useless for genealogical purposes. But this severely impacts any conclusions drawn by law enforcement based on self-provided, unverified data in genealogical databases.
Ever since Dolly was cloned, even before, there have been discussions about how science and technology have moved far beyond our laws. We do need to update our laws and define what is legal and what is not. Recent laws like GINA and the California SB 559 are a start. We need more. Some of us have been worried about and fighting to keep the government from restricting our right to access our own DNA test results without unnecessary regulation and interference by those who think they know better than we do. This current controversy could exacerbate the regulation situation — or make it irrelevant if no one tests anymore because they worry about the police getting their DNA data.

Why is it we never seem to be proactive in solving issues instead of panicking and being reactive? There will always be those who will violate the accepted rules, but we should document the rules to provide guidance for those who want to know what is right and what is wrong.

My personal opinion is that I have no problem with police doing any DNA tests they want on convicted felons or on someone they have REASONABLY concluded is a suspect. I am against blanket DNA testing to try to narrow down an investigation to possible suspects. I am against using medical and genealogical databases for criminal investigations. I suspect my relatives and friends who are involved with police work might disagree with me.

When and if we ever learn enough about DNA so that we can be sure the guilty person is the only one who will be caught in a net, I might change my mind. Today there are too many unknowns to put what we have learned about relationships from genealogical DNA testing to use nabbing suspected criminals.

Note: I did not include links to DNA projects or mail-lists to document my statements above. In this paranoid environment that does not seem prudent. And I'll leave it to the mathematicians to post the supporting statistics now under discussion by genetic genealogists.

Related Stories:

Does DNA Link 1991 Killing to Colonial Era Family? by Blaine Bettinger of The Genetic Genealogist offers a commmon sense way of looking at this issue. He may convince me that it is acceptable to use medical and genealogical databases for criminal investigations.

Added 12 January 2012:

Using Public Y-DNA Profiles to Track Down Criminals: Would You? by CeCe Moore of Your Genetic Genealogist asks "If one of your loved ones was murdered and you believed that you could identify the guilty party using the same resources that we use for our hobby...wouldn't you?" and offers supporting arguments.

Added 14 January 2012:

"The Mayflower criminal registry," by John Hawks of John Hawks weblog brings up issues we should discuss as affordable whole-genome research becomes a reality.

© 2012, Debbie Parker Wayne, CG, All Rights Reserved


  1. Great work on keeping everyone updated on the latest DNA stories. I've been meaning to get around to blogging on this, but it has been a crazy few days. Nice coverage!

  2. Thanks, CeCe. It seems like the critical things that need immediate attention always happen when I'm swamped. I forced the time to make this post. And I just added new links to the related stories section if anyone wants to read more, including CeCe's article.

  3. Interesting thoughts from John Hawks in
    "The Mayflower criminal registry" on issues we should discuss as affordable whole-genome research becomes a reality.

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