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By Michaela Janse van RensburgAP0602 - Contemporary Issues in Forensic Science



6. References

5. Responce

2. Background

1. Intro

3. Issues

4. Ethics

1. Introduction

  • Geneology sites are platforms where people can connect to current family and other people on their family tree, discover their family history, and trace their ancestors.
  • This is done by submitting a sample of your DNA to a genealogy site, where they will process your DNA and input you into the DNA database where it will be compared to other submitted samples for any similarities.

What are geneology sites?

Geneology sites

+ Info

  • Golden state killer aka Joseph James DeAngelo (2018)
  • Ruben Smith (2022)

Crimes solved using genealogy sites

  • Joseph DeAngelo was believed to have committed 12 murders, 50 rapes, and multiple burglaries in the 1970s and 80s.
  • DNA was found in the early 2000s from reviewing the double murder of Lyman and Charlene Smith (1980)
  • They compared the DNA to the results in the DNA databases and rape kits with no results.
  • In 2018, they decided to run the DNA through a genealogy website and were able to generate a family tree of the killer.
  • Investigators concluded that Joseph DeAngelo was the suspect after eliminating others due to age, location, and other factors.
  • A piece of discarded DNA was compared to the Killer's sample.
  • The results were a match and DeAngelo was arrested 6 days later.

Golden State Killer

  • Convicted of the murders of Shannon Rose Lloyd and Renee Cuevas in 1987 and 1989.
  • DNA was found but had no match in the DNA database, CODIS.
  • In 2021 his DNA was submitted to a geneology website.
  • The resulting investigation led to the killer being identified as Ruben Smith.
  • He died in 1999 from suicide, but was arrested previously for assult and attempted murder where a DNA sample was placed in the system.
  • The samples were compared and resulted in a match.

Ruben Smith

2. The Science behind it

The reason we can find and match a set of DNA from one person to their family is due to how DNA is inherited from their parents. This is called genetic inheritance.

How does it work?

At home DNA kit:After you buy the kit and it gets sent to you by post, you spit in the tube, which you close and mail it back. After a few weeks, you will get your results by email

At a crime scene:After a presumptive test, the body fluid is lifted with one or multiple swabs and placed in sterile packaging to be sent to the lab.

How is the DNA collected?

  • For the test, all autosomal chromosomes need to be separated from the non-DNA.
  • This is done by adding a buffer solution to change the acidity of the Nucleic acid in the DNA.
  • This solution is then added into a spin column which goes into the centrifuge to separate the DNA and non-DNA.
  • This works because the Nucleic acid binds to the gel that's inside the column while the rest falls to the bottom.
  • The DNA is then rinsed and a basic buffer is added to remove it from the column.

DNA extraction

  • Most genealogy websites use SNP (Single Nucleotide polymorphism) screening.
  • SNPs (pronounced 'snips') are responsible for the genetic differences in single base pairs of your nucleotides.
  • The locations of these SNPs are mostly inherited and a result of evolution but some are individual.
  • These inherited SNPs and their locations are what are screened for and a combination of the same types and locations is what provides a match.
  • This screening is done by placing the DNA inside a Real-time PCR Machine which screens and analyses for the known SNPs in the DNA to see if its a match.

DNA Screening

  • The sample's DNA is extracted.
  • The raw DNA data is sent to the genealogy websites under a fake identity where it is compared to other profiles
  • The genealogy comes back with the results.
  • From there a family tree is built with everyone who shares the DNA if there isn't a match.
  • After that, the police have to eliminate suspects based on age, location, alibi, or even description.
  • After narrowing the suspect pool, the police have to take a new sample off the suspect to compare to the original.
  • This can be done internally in the forensic labs or by submitting it to the genealogy website.

How is it used in investigations?

As this is a new technique used for Investigations, there are currently no laws in place regarding the use of genealogy websites and databases for processing and comparing DNA found at a crime scene. There may be legal issues, however, if doing so violates the privacy agreement between them and their customers.

3. From a Forensic standpoint...

  1. Labs may not be accredited which could lead to contamination and false results.
  2. Ethical and legal issues relating to consent to use DNA and familial information.
  3. Results may not be accepted due to unethical collection or processing.
  1. Much larger database of DNA to be compared to.
  2. Standardised form of results for international use (same system).
  3. Faster results due to less legal stipulatons.


Pros and Cons of Geneology websites as a resource

  • Value of evidence - DNA might not be needed or the DNA could be from someone who isn't the suspect.
  • Outsourcing - Law enforcement employs Forensic labs at a higher price for them to run the samples themselves.
  • DNA might end up being contaminated or degraded leading to not only the incorrect suspect but also their family.
  • The emotional strain and social implications for the family.
  • The further consent issue of family members that have not submitted DNA but are still being included in the investigation due to another family member's DNA being submitted.
  • The bias that may come with knowing the ethnicity or medical records of the suspect.

Other considerations

4. Public concerns

Consent wasn't given for familial searching or being used in an investigation.

Lack of laws surounding the collection, proccessing and use of results.

Other confidential information (i.e. medical hsitory) can be found without the usual legal boundries.

Saftey of DNA records. Its stored as a public database with only company firewalls.

Using it needlessly or unnesecarily for non-serious crimes.

Concerns raised about privacy laws and 8th human right being violated.

Issues to consider

5. How is this being resolved?

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Since the Golden State Killer case, many geneology websites have changed their privacy notice and terms and conditions to either ask for consent or inform the user that their DNA could be used by law enforcement.

Updated T&Cs

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A survey was taken to determine the public's opinion on the use of geneology sites in investigations.


6. References

  1. Family History Fanatics & Genealogists (2017). How DNA Inheritance Impacts Your DNA Results | Genetic Genealogy Explained. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-f7VUPmgy2U [Accessed 2 Sep. 2022].
  2. Shapiro, E. and Johnson, W. (2018). How DNA from family members helped solve the ‘Golden State Killer’ case: DA. [online] ABC News. Available at: https://abcnews.go.com/US/dna-family-members-helped-solved-golden-state-killer/story?id=54800093.
  3. Shapiro, E. (2022). 2 cold case murders from 1980s solved with genetic genealogy: Police. [online] ABC News. Available at: https://abcnews.go.com/US/cold-case-murders-1980s-solved-genetic-genealogy-police/story?id=87416810.
  4. Berkman, B.E., Miller, W.K. and Grady, C. (2018). Is It Ethical to Use Genealogy Data to Solve Crimes? Annals of Internal Medicine, [online] 169(5), p.333. doi:https://doi.org/10.7326/M18-1348.
  5. Biology LibreTexts. (2018). 9.1: DNA Isolation, Sequencing, and Synthesis. [online] Available at: https://bio.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Biochemistry/Fundamentals_of_Biochemistry_(Jakubowski_and_Flatt)/01%3A_Unit_I-_Structure_and_Catalysis/09%3A_Investigating_DNA/9.01%3A_DNA_Isolation_Sequencing_and_Synthesis.
  6. Chen, J. and Schedl, T. (2021). A simple one-step PCR assay for SNP detection. microPublication Biology, [online] 2021. doi:https://doi.org/10.17912/micropub.biology.000399.
  7. Guerrini, C.J., Robinson, J.O., Petersen, D. and McGuire, A.L. (2018). Should police have access to genetic genealogy databases? Capturing the Golden State Killer and other criminals using a controversial new forensic technique. PLOS Biology, [online] 16(10), pp.1–9. doi:https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2006906.Tina Hesman Saey (2018).
  8. Why using genetic genealogy to solve crimes could pose problems. [online] Science News. Available at: https://www.sciencenews.org/article/why-police-using-genetic-geneaology-solve-crimes-poses-problems.
  9. Kennett, D. (2019) ‘Using genetic genealogy databases in missing persons cases and to develop suspect leads in violent crimes’, Forensic science international, 301, pp. 107–117. doi:10.1016/j.forsciint.2019.05.016.
  10. Phillips, C. (2018) ‘The Golden State Killer investigation and the nascent field of forensic genealogy’, Forensic science international : genetics, 36, pp. 186–188. doi:10.1016/j.fsigen.2018.07.010.
  11. Phillips, C. (2015) ‘Forensic genetic analysis of bio-geographical ancestry’, Forensic science international : genetics, 18, pp. 49–65. doi:10.1016/j.fsigen.2015.05.012
  12. Chen, J. and Schedl, T. (2021) ‘A simple one-step PCR assay for SNP detection’, microPublication biology, 2021. doi:10.17912/micropub.biology.000399.
  13. Callaway, E. (2018) ‘Privacy concerns over DNA used for crime investigation’, Nature (London), 562(7727), pp. 315–316. doi:10.1038/d41586-018-06997-8.
  14. Machado, H. and Silva, S. (2019) ‘What influences public views on forensic DNA testing in the criminal field? A scoping review of quantitative evidence’, Human genomics, 13(1), pp. 23–23. doi:10.1186/s40246-019-0207-5.


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