Your Cousins Have A Right To Know

DNA and the Law

As always the DNA world is a fast-paced world and this week was no exception.

If you read this article from BuzzFeed News you’ll find out the back story of what happened. But the short version is that a current criminal case had been solved by Parabon NanoLabs using DNA. This wasn’t a cold case but a current case, but law enforcement through that the crime was so brutal that it needed to be solved as soon as possible to prevent the criminal from doing it again. (Note that the article may not portray the crime as brutal but when I heard about this case at i4GG in December it was described differently than in the article). At i4GG we were told that through genetic genealogy, they knew that the criminal was one of several brothers and when they were brought in for questioning one of the boys confessed. As I said I heard about the case at i4GG in December, at least the part about how the case was solved.

At the time I didn’t give it much thought because it sounded so brutal and somehow I had gotten it into my mind that the lady had been raped as well. Why is that important? Well, it’s because Parabon had used the Gedmatch site and their Terms of Service stated that law enforcement could use the site only for cases that were either rape or murder.

I know what some of you will say; “that a crime of this nature really isn’t that different and that the person needs to be caught”. But Terms of Service are there for your protection and the websites so that everyone knows the rules and Gedmatch had gone against their own rules.

When this all came out this past weekend, there was again a flurry of discussion on Facebook as to whether it was right or wrong and what should be done.

To Gedmatch’s credit, their reaction was quick. Now when you go to their site and log in, you’ll be asked to once again agree to their Terms of Service.

You’ll notice that the definition of “violent crime” has been revised to cover
murder, non-negligent manslaughter, aggravated rape, robbery, or aggravated assault.

You’ll also see that there are 4 classes of DNA data on Gedmatch: ‘Private’, ‘Research’, ‘Public + opt-in’ and ‘Public + opt-out’.

All the changes are hi-lited in red but it’s always a good idea to read everything to ensure you know what you’re agreeing to. One thing you may notice is that they say they aren’t going to contact you to make you aware of the changes now or in the future. So if you didn’t know about this change then I’d suggest you go to Gedmatch and make your own decision because your kit and the kits you manage aren’t available for cousin matching or for law enforcement at this time, so if either of those things matters to you then you’ll want to look into this.

What I’d like to speak about today is that if you are the keeper of some of your cousins DNA then it’s important that you have a discussion with your cousins so that you know what they would like you to do. I know it’s easy to get caught up using DNA on a daily basis but it’s important that you remember that the sample is your cousin’s and they have a right to know what that sample is being used for today.

When I started working with DNA and using it for my family history back in 2010, at that time I just got a verbal acceptance because after all, they gave me their DNA, didn’t they?

But now it’s important that you get in touch with them and really explain all facets of DNA and for yours and their protection have them sign a document that notes what they are agreeing to and ensuring that they understand. As I’ve mentioned before (in previous blogs) Blaine Bettinger has a good consent form found HERE but I do know that it’s having a revision to update its information. You could also write up your own using it as a guideline.

In my case; my family of cousins initially agreed to the cousin matching and that’s not the issue. They all understood that I was transferring their DNA to other sites to find cousins but now I need to make sure they understand because some of those sites now use the DNA for law enforcement cases.

So here’s the questions I’m going to ask and have them sign:

  1. Can their DNA kit be used for law enforcement cases in addition to cousin matching? (The answer to this will help should any of the site change in the future and hopefully mitigate having to make contact for permission in the future).
  2. Can their DNA kit be used to provide health information? Do they want to know what is found if they agree? (Similarly, should a site offer health information now or in the future, now I know what they would want me to do.)
  3. after their initial test at the DNA site, we’ve agreed on. Can I transfer to another site?

Of course at this meeting I’ll get into the details of each of the companies.

Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) – letting them know that FTDNA has an auto opt-in for law enforcement so that by them telling me how to handle their DNA I know whether to switch it on or off.

Ancestry and 23andMe do not allow uploads, so currently, law enforcement cannot upload a file.

MyHeritage does allow upload but is adamant about their site not being used for law enforcement cases.

Living DNA allows uploads but at this point, I’m unsure about how they deal with law enforcement so I won’t be uploading any additional kits to their site until I investigate further.

Gedmatch allows upload and can be used for law enforcement, and with my cousins answers to the questions, this gives me guidelines on how to proceed.

I don’t want to get in on the whole discussion as to whether law enforcement should or shouldn’t be using DNA in this way. I know how I feel but I understand that others don’t feel the same way and in the case of my cousins and other family members, it’s their DNA and their wishes.

But my cousins have a right to know.