Genealogists were shocked that FamilyTreeDNA would keep this secret. (Investigators in the Golden State Killer case and others had used the same methods with another genealogy database, called GEDmatch, which became aware of their involvement at the same time as the public.) But on the underlying question of law enforcement using genealogy databases at all, genealogists have had fewer qualms. A poll of 639 genealogists by Maurice Gleeson last year found that 85 percent were “reasonably comfortable” with law enforcement using GEDmatch to identify serial rapists and killers. And in October, bioethicists at Baylor College of Medicine published the results of a more generalized survey: Of the 1,587 respondents, 91 percent supported forensic genealogy for violent crimes, and 46 percent for nonviolent crimes.
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So instead of backing off, FamilyTreeDNA appears to have leaned into the controversy. (The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) While other major players in DNA testing, such as 23andMe, AncestryDNA, and MyHeritage, have resisted law enforcement, FamilyTreeDNA now allows investigators to upload the suspect’s DNA profiles to find potential relatives. Their access to full DNA profiles of everyone in the database is restricted, though, and customers can opt out of law-enforcement matching. Forensic Magazine reports that less than 1 percent of U.S. customers chose to opt out after one week. GEDmatch did not see an exodus of users after the Golden State Killer case either.
Americans, it seems, are not that concerned about sending a relative to prison. In most cases, the suspect’s DNA profile will match only distant relatives, such as second or third or fourth cousins, who might not even know each other. (A distant-relative match, in combination with social media and public records, can be enough to ultimately ID the suspect.) A woman in Washington State recently found out her DNA on GEDmatch had led to the arrest of her second cousin twice removed for murder in Iowa. Before she shared her DNA, her brother had worried about getting a family member arrested. But now, she told The Gazette of Cedar Rapids, “I feel OK about it … I want someone to have to do time if [he/she] did something like that. I don’t regret it now.” She had never met and did not know the man arrested.
Christi Guerrini, an ethicist at Baylor who co-authored the October survey, told me she had been surprised to see such high support for law-enforcement use of genetic genealogy. The survey is prefaced by a description of the Golden State Killer, and she acknowledged that mentioning such a “notorious” case could bias respondents.
On the other hand, that is exactly how the American public as a whole was introduced to forensic genealogy. Genealogists told me they feared a public backlash to other possible test cases—such as identifying a baby abandoned by his mother. Arresting a suspected serial killer who murdered at least 13 people and raped at least 50 made the technique a much easier sell.