I'm Watching a DNA Tennis Match, and I am Terrible at Tennis

DNA privacy matters—and so does catching criminals and identifying victims. How best to do all that is a back-and-forth debate across the genetic genealogy world and beyond.

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One of the biggest benefits of my job is the opportunity I have to interact with so many people who are not at all like me. I am so grateful to my friends who have taught me to see the other side of the coin, the flip side of the pillow, and the underside of an iceberg. But the results of all of the conversations this week about GEDmatch and privacy have me feeling like I am at a tennis match with its incessant back and forth (unless I am playing, and then it is really just back with no forth).

Many have already written about this issue. Before I introduce these key players, I want to reiterate that everyone involved wants the very same thing: to bring closure to families and keep criminals off the street. Everyone is in complete agreement there. The divide has come in just HOW and WHEN that should be done.

DNA privacy and criminal investigation

Camp A
How: All currently available resources including GEDmatch and Family Tree DNA
When: Now

This camp houses names like Barbara Rae- Venter (the genetic genealogist who helped with the first Golden State Killer Case; see this Time article), CeCe Moore, lead genetic genealogist for Parabon (a company processing most of the law enforcement samples and submitting to GEDmatch), and Roberta Estes, a well known blogger at DNA Explained, who set off a bit of a firestorm with her latest article.

My interpretation of Camp A is that they feel that sufficient notice has been given to individuals in each database that has allowed them to make their choice about their participation in this work for law enforcement. They are sympathetic to the pleas of parents and children of those who have been wronged and want to bring a swift end to their waiting for answers that they know genetic genealogy can provide.

Camp B
How: A dedicated database just for law enforcement
When: As soon as one with appropriate security and privacy can be set up

On the flip side, those who advocate the need for a hold on the current charge to move forward with genetic genealogy technology, in order to set up standards and ideally a separate database dedicated just to genetic genealogy use in law enforcement. Prominent figures in this camp include Blaine Bettinger (who just blogged about this topic here) and Judy Russell (who just blogged about this here). Camp B is of the opinion that without proper oversight and direction, all the good that can be done by the use of genetic genealogy to help solve crimes will just be undone when this process is tried in court.

They argue that this situation should be all about choice. It should be about making sure that every person gets to decide if their DNA is used in this way or not. They are lobbying for a step back—a pause—while we gather ourselves together and make some educated and informed decisions about how to move forward.

When GEDmatch changed their TOC’s earlier this week, I thought we were finally arriving at a situation that would satisfy both camps. We would have Family Tree DNA, which is opt-out, with a larger database to satisfy the immediate needs of Camp A, and GEDmatch, which is opt-in, that would satisfy Camp B. However, as it turns out, GEDmatch isn’t really opt-in, as the kit numbers are available, and once you have a opt-in kit number, you have access to the entire database (you can read more about that on Blaine or Judy’s blog, as mentioned above).


So we are back to tennis with the back and forth about what is right and what is wrong.

I am firmly placed in Camp B myself, but I do still like to hear from Camp A. I still understand their perspective and their desire to wield this obviously-useful tool for good. But I am afraid that while we are slashing this new tool around, we will be eroding more than we anticipate. I firmly believe that there is a right way, a best way to do this. We have a voice and the power to set a standard about how this is done, and I really hope we can find a way to stand together. Maybe I am sounding a bit like Miss America, asking for world peace, but if someone doesn’t ask for it, it will never happen.

So I am asking. Let’s do this right. Let’s start a new database and set a new standard for how genetic genealogy can be used in law enforcement.

In case you didn’t read it, here’s the GEDmatch news (and my feelings about it) from earlier this week.