More than half of Americans could be identified by just a sample of their DNA along with also some sleuthing in public genealogy databases — using methods similar to those used by cops to catch the man they believe can be the Golden State Killer.
that will’s the conclusion of a brand new study looking at a database of 1.28 million DNA profiles held by the company MyHeritage, based in Israel. About half of the US population — 60% of those with white European ancestry — have a third cousin or closer relative within the database, the researchers calculated.
that will means the idea could be relatively easy, they say, for investigators to match a DNA sample left at a crime scene to someone within the database, then use census records along with also different genealogy tools to construct family trees that will lead to the culprit.
As more people upload their DNA profiles to genealogy databases, the idea will only get easier to identify suspects by partial matches to crime-scene DNA. along with also Yaniv Erlich of Columbia University, who led the research, expects that will genealogists will become more skilled at tracking down their quarry.
“I also think that will the methods along with also the tactics will get better along with also better,” said Erlich, who can be chief science officer with MyHeritage. “People will find different tricks.”
Erlich’s results are broadly similar to earlier back-of-the-envelope calculations made by geneticists Graham Coop along with also Michael Edge of the University of California, Davis, for GEDmatch, a database that will contains the DNA profiles of about a million people along with also was used to help identify the suspected Golden State Killer.
although the genealogist who has already cracked a dozen similar cases using GEDmatch told BuzzFeed News that will, in practice, the idea can be harder to identify suspects than the researchers assume.
“the idea’s very difficult, because every case has unique challenges to overcome,” said CeCe Moore, who can be working with the company Parabon NanoLabs to help cops solve cold-case murders along with also rapes.
Identifying someone by a partial match between their DNA means building family trees that will might link a third cousin, for example, to the target. Because family trees contain many branches, the idea can be laborious work. along with also complications such as adoptions, misunderstandings over who can be actually the biological father of a child, or recent immigration by countries that will don’t have reliable records of family history can make the idea impossible to make an identification, Moore said.
Still, in some cases, a target can be identified in just a few hours. In their research paper, published today in Science, Erlich along with also his colleagues described how they uploaded to GEDmatch the DNA profile of a woman who had previously donated her DNA for the 1000 Genomes Project, an international effort to study human genetic variation. The researchers found that will they were able find her within a day by constructing family trees by her closest relatives in GEDmatch.
In their paper, they say This particular highlights a risk that will people who donated their DNA anonymously for medical research could have their identities exposed.
“The fact that will you can do the idea in a day can be fairly revealing,” Edge told BuzzFeed News.
Erlich along with also his colleagues have a suggestion to protect people’s privacy within the brand new era of forensic genetic genealogy: They want companies providing genetic tests to apply a secure digital signature to each DNA profile they generate. These digital signatures could then be used to limit the use of genetic genealogy by cops — along with also anyone else who might want to try along with also identify someone by a DNA profile.
MyHeritage, like most genetic testing companies, opposes the use of its database by law enforcement without a court order. However, because MyHeritage allows customers to upload profiles produced by different companies into its database, This particular “digital signature” idea could need buy-in by different firms. The three largest — 23andMe, Ancestry, along with also Family Tree DNA — declined to comment on Erlich’s proposal.
“We don’t have enough information on the solution proposed by the researchers to evaluate the idea at This particular point,” 23andMe spokesperson Andy Kill told BuzzFeed News by email.
GEDmatch, meanwhile, modified its terms of service after the Golden State Killer arrest to warn users that will their profiles could be searched “by third parties such as law enforcement agencies to identify the perpetrator of a crime, or to identify remains.”
If cops also had access to the technology, a digital signature scheme could in theory allow GEDmatch to differentiate between criminal investigations, which the idea allows, along with also nefarious use by different people to breach people’s privacy, for example by “outing” research volunteers.
GEDmatch cofounder Curtis Rogers told BuzzFeed News by email that will the digital signatures idea “merits serious consideration.” He added: “We at GEDmatch are very concerned about the proper use of genealogical information.”
Paul Holes, a retired investigator with the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office who led the team that will snared the suspected Golden State Killer, said that will cops could be concerned about any privacy controls that will might reveal their investigative activities.
“There’s a reason why we did not communicate with GEDmatch about the Golden State Killer case,” Holes told BuzzFeed News. “If we had a leak, you have a very dangerous offender who potentially could decide to skip town, or take a hostage.”
Erlich’s calculations also show that will genetic genealogy involves some racial biases that will run counter to ways in which criminal investigations often play out. Because black Americans are disproportionately arrested along with also imprisoned, their profiles are overrepresented in police DNA databases. This particular makes the idea more likely that will a match will be found to a crime-scene sample for a black suspect.
although GEDmatch along with also different genealogy databases contain a disproportionate number of profiles by white Americans. Erlich along with also his colleagues found that will people having a mainly North European ancestry were 30% more likely to have a third cousin or closer in MyHeritage’s database than someone whose ancestry can be largely African. This particular means that will white suspects could be easier to find using genealogical methods.
Already, police are looking at the success of using genetic genealogy on decades-old cold cases along with also realizing that will the same methods can be used in current investigations. In July, Moore along with also Parabon used the approach to identify 31-year-old Spencer Glen Monnett as the suspect within the rape of a 79-year-old woman in St. George, Utah, that will happened in April of This particular year.
“A lot of forward-thinking investigators are thinking, ‘Why not get This particular guy off the streets right now?’” Ellen Greytak, Parabon’s director of bioinformatics, told BuzzFeed News.