By: Andrea Cipriano, MAFP
With any new and evolving technology, many fear what they don’t understand. Let’s dispel some myths about forensic genetic genealogy, and drive home the truth that crimes get solved because of this work.
It’s the molecule that carries genetic information — a code, a map, a database of identity. Our DNA is the blueprint of our existence, carrying the keys to who we are within its double helix.
For many unsolved violent crimes and cases with unidentified victims, DNA can be the only difference between families never getting answers, and justice. With the ability to link suspects to crime scenes with unmatched accuracy, DNA evidence has revolutionized the way law enforcement investigates criminal cases.
But, since forensic genetic genealogy is a relatively new method of analyzing crimes, there are some misconceptions regarding the technique. Concerning myths about database access and valid fears about privacy and civil liberties have been raised.
Uncovered spoke to experts across the forensic genetic genealogy field to set the record straight, dispel fear, and assure the public that the future of this crime-fighting technology is revolutionary.
As most episodes of CSI will tell you, DNA testing and analysis is a staple of modern crime investigations. The myth that genetic genealogy is a short-lived craze for solving crimes couldn’t be further from the truth.
Not only is this scientific work here to stay, but saying it’s a trend undermines the longstanding potential it has to bring justice to victims and their families.
Genetic genealogy creates family history profiles, or biological relationships, by using DNA test results in combination with traditional genealogical methods. Put in a forensic and crime-solving context, these family history profiles are utilized for identifying suspects or victims in criminal cases.
Rachel Oefelein, the Chief Scientific Officer at DNA Labs International (DLI), shared with Uncovered that DNA is critical when making familial matches in criminal investigations because “sometimes family is all we have to compare to!”
Oefelein added, “Instead of looking for one person which can be a bit like a needle in a haystack if they aren’t in CODIS, we now have genealogy as a tool to widen our search.”
While there are many crimes that can be solved without DNA, for many of the coldest cases in the country, DNA is their only lifeline.
Since around the 1960s, some law enforcement agencies knew that more scientific advancements were just around the corner, which is why they began saving biological evidence from victims and crime scenes to identify the suspect. DNA was going to be powerful, even if that would only be true and put killers behind bars a few decades later.
Fast forward to today, and as of the end of 2022, over 545 cases have been solved with forensic genetic genealogy.
Much of that is thanks to GEDmatch.
Since 2018, over 400 cases have been solved thanks to people who have uploaded their DNA data to GEDmatch and chosen to be a genetic witness and help name the nameless.
GEDmatch is a free DNA comparison and analysis website for people who have tested their DNA using a direct-to-consumer genetic testing company, like 23andMe or Ancestry.
Anyone can then download their DNA file from the testing company, and upload it to GEDmatch to further discover ethnicity, heritage, and ancestor information. GEDmatch processes the file, adds it to a genealogical database, and provides applications for matching and further analysis.
Colleen Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., an internationally recognized forensic genealogist and pioneer in the development of forensic genetic genealogy for solving violent crimes, told Uncovered that uploading your profile to GEDmatch is imperative because if you want to help law enforcement, your data has to be included, and you have to opt-in.
This “opt-in” choice brings us to our next myth.
🧬 How to Upload your DNA Profile to GEDmatch 🧬
Step One: Accessing Your Raw DNA Data from your Testing Company
- Sign into the account you made with the direct-to-consumer Testing Company DNA site. This could be 23andMe, Ancestry, Living DNA, etc. GEDmatch supports DNA data from over 20 vendors, including major testing companies. See some of the testing companies on the GEDmatch homepage.
- Once you’ve signed into your account from another site, there will be a tab under your profile that has language like “Download raw data,” or “Download DNA data.” For 23andMe, this will be under Resources on the dropdown menu, and towards the bottom of the page for Ancestry. Some sites will ask you to check a consent box.
- After you’ve downloaded your DNA data, it will look like a big file with a series of letters. This is your SNP (single-nucleotide polymorphism) profile in the form of a .zip file.
Step Two: Uploading to GEDmatch
- Make a free GEDmatch account, and log in.
- Click on “Generic uploads (23andMe, FTDNA, AncestryDNA, most others)”
- Provide as much information as you can in the form.
- If you’re not familiar with your mitochondrial haplogroup or Y haplogroup, don’t worry — you can leave these fields blank. Make sure to provide the name of your testing kit company. This will be helpful when working with shared matches, as you may be able to glean good information from their family trees on the source site.
- Fill in your consent. You can choose what level of privacy you would like for your DNA kit (more on that later in this article). Simply select the option you prefer. After that, scroll down a bit and follow these steps:
- Click on the “Browse” or “Choose File” button at the bottom of the page
- Find the raw data .zip file you just downloaded from your testing company (23AndMe, or Ancestry, etc.)
- Find the title at the bottom of the page; highlight it and then click on “open” You can now see the title next to your GEDmatch browse button
Click the upload button and wait until you see the word “Finish” This processing could take up to 24 hours for all features and functionality to become available.
Tom Osypian, the Associate Director of GEDmatch and GEDmatch PRO shared with Uncovered that it’s simply not true that law enforcement officers can peruse online DNA databases looking for DNA to nail for crimes.
It’s more complicated — and secure — than that. There’s no special access, no backdoor, and no hidden key.
Osypian made it clear that “Law enforcement can only compare against profiles that consumers have given permission to allow law enforcement to compare against.”
In other words, on GEDmatch, someone would have to “opt-in” and choose to allow their DNA to be compared to genetic samples uploaded by law enforcement looking only for violent offenders in sexual assault and homicide cases.
GEDmatch calls this being “a genetic witness.”
🧬 Opt-In or Out?🧬
There are 4 different privacy options on GEDmatch, as explained to Uncovered by Tom Osypian, the Associate Director of GEDmatch and GEDmatch PRO:
- Opt-In: This is where other individuals (including adoptees) and LE can match against a consumer’s profile.
- Opt-out: This is where other individuals (including adoptees) can match against an individual’s profile, but LE can’t match against for the identification of perpetrators of violent crime but they can for the identification of unidentified human remains.
- Research: This is specifically for people conducting personal genealogy research. The profiles with this classification are not available to others to match against, including LE.
- Private: Profiles with this classification are not seen by others and can only be used with the 1:1 matching application by the owner in GEDmatch.
When a person chooses to “opt-in” and share their DNA profile with law enforcement, the police can only see those profiles in a portal designed specifically for them.
Meet GEDmatch PRO.
“GEDmatch PRO is a portal designated for law enforcement usage that accesses GEDmatch the same way any regular GEDmatch user would,” Osypian explained to Uncovered. “Law enforcement uses GEDmatch to identify perpetrators of violent crime or to identify unidentified human remains.”
Only individuals authorized to upload law enforcement DNA kits and genealogists affiliated with law enforcement can register for a GEDmatch PRO account.
It’s a common fear that investigative genealogy will result in wrongful convictions, but thankfully, DNA genealogy work is used as an investigative lead — not as grounds for arrest. Just as that’s a common fear, it’s a myth that law enforcement officials have “special access” to genetic databases and can manipulate or accidentally select innocent people’s DNA to pin crimes on them.
Your DNA profile in GEDmatch could get you into trouble if you commit a violent crime. The same is true for a family member.
“When you upload your DNA profile and Opt-in you are in essence becoming a molecular eyewitness for police who are using GEDmatch to solve a violent crime,” Osypian explained to Uncovered.
“If your DNA profile matches against [law enforcement’s] unknown profile, it is possible that it might be a close relative,” Osypian added. “This might be an uncomfortable situation for you, but you would be helping the police solve the crime and bring justice to the victim(s) and their family.”
To that end, Oefelein of DNA Labs International shared that “often times, these matches are so distant that the individuals do not even know the individual they match to.”
As with any investigative work, police using any genealogy tool look for probable cause and evaluate the totality of the circumstances before honing in on a suspect.
The Future of Genetic Genealogy
As the use of DNA evidence in forensic investigations continues to evolve, so does the field of genetic genealogy.
Fitzpatrick shared with Uncovered that she believes the general public will become more comfortable with forensic genetic genealogy.
“With the increasing popularity of consumer DNA testing kits, more and more individuals are choosing to upload their genetic data to public and private databases for ancestry and genealogical research purposes,” she shared.
Osypian from GEDmatch is already seeing this come to life, telling Uncovered that GEDmatch is growing, and if more of the 40 million people in the US who have already taken a DNA test upload their results to a database, “the easier it will be to identify genetic relatives and for law enforcement to solve crimes.”
Oefelein agrees, noting that technology will advance hand-in-hand with public acceptance.
“Inherently, when there is interest in technology in forensics, commercial companies tend to double down by making it faster, more sensitive, and more economical,” Oefelein said.
Osypian shared a sneak peek of this, telling Uncovered that one area that he sees will be developed further is automated tree building based on the match list results from GEDmatch.
Soon, it will be easier than ever for the researcher to trace ancestors and learn from their heritage, while simultaneously helping law enforcement ensure that violent offenders face justice for crimes they thought they got away with.
DNA is a small molecule with a big impact, and in the fight for the truth, it illuminates the clues left behind. By uploading your DNA Data, you can help bring closure to families looking for answers.
Rachel Oefelein is the Chief Scientific Officer at DNA Labs International (DLI). Before that, Oefelein was the Director of Research and Innovation. Since joining DLI in 2014, Oefelein has testified in 10 Florida counties, three states and four countries as an expert witness for both the prosecution and the defense in misdemeanor and felony trials.
Colleen Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., the President and Founder of Identifinders International LLC, is widely recognized as the founder of modern Forensic Genealogy. She has worked on several hundred cold case violent crimes and Doe cases using genetic genealogy analysis. Fitzpatrick is also a member of Vidocq Society, a volunteer group of experts and investigators who serve as confidential consultants to assist law enforcement in solving difficult cold cases.
Tom Osypian is the Associate Director HID for GEDmatch and GEDmatch PRO. GEDmatch PRO is a dedicated portal designed to support police and forensic teams with investigative comparisons to GEDmatch data. Osypian is also an advisory board member for UC Irvine’s Customer Experience Program.
LOVE THIS POST? MEET THE AUTHOR.
Andrea Cipriano is the Digital Content Specialist at Uncovered, where she writes for the twice-weekly true crime newsletter, The Citizen Detective. Andrea graduated with a Master of Arts in Forensic Psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice where she focused on researching and peeling back the criminal mind. Andrea believes that it’s never too late for justice.
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