Your DNA test could land a family member in jail

In the last 50 years, the global population has more than doubled. However, as technology advances, the world is getting smaller and smaller. New forms of communication have brought us closer together and even our ancestors no longer seem so far away.

Home DNA-testing kits provide us the opportunity to trace our family history, find out which parts of the world our ancestors came from and even discover which diseases we might be more predisposed to.

It’s a lucrative industry too - with the global market worth $70m in 2015 and set to rise to $340m by 2022. However, while curious consumers are keen to find out about their genealogy, they could potentially be falling prey to a trap.

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On 11 September 1975, Claude Snelling was shot dead on his own property in Visalia, California. Having woken up to strange noises, he remembered a recent incident with a figure standing outside his house - under a window.

Rushing towards an apparent altercation, he discovered a man in his carport trying to kidnap his daughter. The intruder shot Snelling twice, who later died. The unknown man then fled the scene.

This was the first and only murder in the case of the “Visalia Ransacker” - an individual thought to have committed 120 burglaries in the early 1970s. However, authorities suspect that this man is also the “East Area Rapist” and the “Original Night Stalker”. Together they form the “Golden State Killer”, one of the most prolific serial killers in modern history.

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The Golden State Killer committed at least 13 murders in California in addition to dozens of rapes and burglaries. A multitude of police investigations spanning five decades failed to find the killer until, one day, detective Paul Holes uploaded the killer's DNA profile to genealogy website GEDmatch.

The DNA had been obtained from a Ventura County rape kit and the website was able to identify between 10 and 20 distant relatives of the man (sharing the same great-great-great-grandparents).

The authorities roped in genealogist Barbara Rae-Venter to help build the killer’s family tree. Two suspects were identified but one was discounted using a relative’s DNA test. This left one man - Joseph James DeAngelo.

Sacramento Sheriff : Public Domain Credit: Public Domain

DeAngelo was a former police officer who had served in the Vietnam War. In 1970, he was engaged to a woman named Bonnie Colwell which seemed to explain why he shouted "I hate you, Bonnie!" during at least one of his attacks.

Police collected his DNA from a car door handle and from a tissue found in a bin outside his home. The DNA samples matched and, on 24 April, 2018, the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department arrested the 72-year-old.

The court case is still ongoing. DeAngelo cannot be tried for some of the more historical murders due to the statute of limitations however, in November 2018, it was reported that the legal proceedings could cost $20m and take 10 years.

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One of the criticisms of the case is that neither GEDmatch nor any of its users had given permission to use their data. Holes was only able to cross reference the killer’s DNA against the database because the website was open-source. Furthermore, since then, more than a dozen other suspects have been tracked down thanks to GEDmatch.

Sceptics remain similarly suspicious of these cases also. The outcome for DeAngelo will form an important waypoint in what is a tricky pathway even for legal experts. But while deliberations over the findings of the case and the morality of its methods continue, a genealogy business has become the first to voluntarily hand its database to authorities.

On Thursday, FamilyTreeDNA confirmed that they have shared their database with the FBI. Founded in 1999, FamilyTreeDNA is one of the most established home DNA testing companies in the market and holds almost two million genetic profiles.

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The genealogy community was far from impressed by the move, not least because less than a year ago, they agreed to a range of voluntary privacy guidelines set out by DC think tank Future of Privacy Forum. On Friday morning, they had already been removed from the list.

“The deal between FamilyTreeDNA and the FBI is deeply flawed,” said John Verdi, vice president of policy at the think tank. “It’s out of line with industry best practices, it’s out of line with what leaders in the space do and it’s out of line with consumer expectations.”

“The FBI does not have unfettered access to the FamilyTreeDNA database,” Bennett Greenspan, FamilyTreeDNA’s CEO, explained in a statement. The company stated that its lab had received fewer than 10 samples from the FBI, to cross-reference against their database. “The genealogy community, their privacy and confidentiality has always been our top priority,” they said in an email.

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But perhaps a better reason to avoid these DNA testing kits is that they have been roundly ridiculed by experts. Discussing the results provided, campaign group Sense About Science stated: "Such histories are either so general as to be personally meaningless or they are just speculation from thin evidence."

Speaking of claims that individuals are descendants of Vikings and emperors, Professor Mark Thomas of University College London stated: "These claims are usually planted by the companies that provide these so-called tests and are not backed up by published scientific research. This is business, and the business is genetic astrology.” Tracey Brown, Director of Sense About Science, finally adds: “Genetics researchers are telling us that you are better off digging around in your loft than doing a DNA ancestry test if you want to find out about your family tree."

Meanwhile, questions are still being asked as to whether these companies should be able to share their vast amounts of personal information, let alone whether police should mine genealogy databases uninvited. While FamilyTreeDNA attempts to whether the storm, Joseph James DeAngelo’s legal team are preparing his defence ahead of his next court appearance on 10 April.