Gedmatch: A Plea – Please Opt-in
Forgive me the indulgence (it’s my blog after all), but today I need to write about something really close to my heart. I will try and be as objective as I possibly can, but I’m not going to be 100% successful. But I have something to say, and this is really the only place I can do that freely. My hope is that you will read my words and opt-in to share your DNA with Law Enforcement at Gedmatch, with the full understanding of what that means.
How we got here
In case you don’t know, Gedmatch is a public citizen DNA database launched in 2010, as a useful site for genealogists and researchers who utilise DNA. It was also explicitly accepted that the site could be used for any purpose in the original terms of service. Genealogists liked the site because they could upload their raw autosomal DNA data, look for DNA matches and utilise various different DNA analysis tools.
Unsurprisingly, after scores of people identified birth parents using genetic genealogy, and foundlings discovered their identifies via the same methods, the media caught on. It wasn’t long before people worked out that if you were using DNA to identify living people, if you could get an autosomal DNA from unidentified bodies or from crime scenes, you could potentially use genetic genealogy databases to identify those bodies and identify criminal suspects as well.
The DNA Doe Project was formed in 2017, and in March 2018 their first case, ‘Buckskin Girl’, was solved after her DNA profile was uploaded to Gedmatch. Shortly after that, in April 2018, the news that a suspect to be the Golden State Killer had been identified after his profile was also uploaded to Gedmatch.
The following May, the Gedmatch terms were updated to indicate that law enforcement could use its site to try to identify John and Jane Does (whether victims of murder or not), and perpetrators of violent crime, which had been defined as meaning homicide or sexual assault only. Although this did cause some controversy, uploads to the site did actually increase, likely due to media attention and therefore greater awareness of Gedmatch.
A couple of weeks ago, some major news broke with regard to Gedmatch, and there was uproar. Gedmatch had made a unilateral decision to allow law enforcement to upload DNA to its database in order to try and identify the perpetrator of a crime not falling within its own policy – the serious assault of a 71-year-old woman, who was put in a chokehold several times. A suspect (a minor) was identified as a result of the Gedmatch profile.
No-one can argue that this was not a horrific crime, but the fact remains it was outside of the terms that Gedmatch had set for itself in May 2018, and a less controversial route would have been for the founders to change the terms prior to allowing the sample to be uploaded to its site.
As a result of the outcry (fueled in part by this Buzzfeed article), the powers that be at Gedmatch decided to change things quite drastically. In new terms of service published 18 May 2019, Gedmatch explicitly widened its definition of violent crime to “murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, aggravated rape, robbery, or aggravated assault”. Not only that, but they created a new default ‘opt-out’ environment with every single existing Gedmatch DNA Profile automatically being opted out of law-enforcement matching.
As a result of this action, the possibility of identifying criminal suspects and identifying John and Jane Does basically disappeared until the databases are populated with enough people to allow genetic genealogists to work on cases, which could take years, possibly decades. Only cases that were already being worked on have a possibility of still being worked right now, (assuming that those who were working on cases had saved lists of their kits match list before the change was implemented). Whatever your feelings about DNA being used in this way, that is the reality.
What is the justification for the action that Gedmatch took? Quite simply, it’s that of informed consent. Many commentators have argued that people should have the right to consent to the use of their DNA by law enforcement, with US commentators relying on the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution which provides protection to all US Citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. Note no court has ruled that a public citizen DNA database would fall under the Fourth Amendment when used by law enforcement; such a ruling would turn on a court ruling that any use of citizen DNA is by definition an unreasonable search, but I can’t really argue with Gedmatch for deciding that they should act as if a court has ruled that it would.
Why I believe Doe cases should be treated differently to criminal suspect cases
I can understand the opinion that consent is required for searches to try and identify the perpetrator of a crime. I’m as sure on that as I am of the view that it would be irresponsible for law enforcement not to use genetic genealogy to identify perpetrators of serious crime and the remains of John and Jane Does. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be laws around how it should be used, but it’s basically saying, here’s this amazing technology that would enable you to find answers for cases where you have little to go on, and give names to your unidentified remains, but you can’t use it, sorry.
It is my opinion that it should not be controversial, nor considered unreasonable to use citizen DNA Databases to attempt to identify the remains of a deceased person.
Some argue that those cases shouldn’t be treated any differently because law enforcement has involvement with those cases, regardless of whether the deceased person was a victim of murder. Some argue that the identification of a John or Jane Doe might lead to the identification of a murder suspect and that’s why it should be treated differently. I disagree with that viewpoint; I accept that it’s true that the identification of a John and Jane Doe might lead to the identification of a suspect (as it did in this case, for example), but that’s the position an investigator would be in any way, had the victim had their ID in their back pocket or some other means to identify them immediately. The actual identification of a murder victim does not identify a suspect for their murder; the circumstances of their death and evidence related to the crime scene do that.
The argument also assumes that all Does are victims of murder, which is not the case. Some are unexplained deaths (for example, cases where a skeletonized body has been discovered in a remote area in a situation where it doesn’t appear that anyone has tried to hide or otherwise interfere with the remains), deaths by natural causes, and suicides. Out of the 10 Does announced identified so far by the DNA Doe Project, five were confirmed or suspected victims of murder, and of those five, one the perpetrator confessed, and one other the suspected perpetrator (now deceased) was identified, also using genetic genealogy.
The remaining five were either suicide (two cases), natural death (two cases), or the state of the remains and the circumstances in which the remains were found makes it impossible to classify whether the death was natural, suicide or murder.
Of the current 15 active cases that the DNA Doe Project have publically stated they are researching (as at end May 2019), eight are murder victims or suspected murder victims, three are unexplained or unknown causes, three are either natural causes or believed natural causes and one is a suicide. In the case of one of the murder victims, a known serial killer confessed to the murder of the person, well prior to any involvement of the DDP.
I can’t give you any stats for Doe cases that other genealogists and agencies take on, but the point remains that it does not follow that identification via genetic genealogy of a John or Jane Doe leads to the identification of a murder suspect any more than does the identification of a Doe by any other means. I can think of no other area where the potential for something to happen means that we don’t do it. People are wrongfully convicted all the time, but do we stop trying to identify suspects just in case we identify the wrong one? No.
The fact remains, regardless of my personal beliefs or anyone else’s, we currently do have a regime where DNA kits relating to John and Jane Does are treated identically to DNA kits relating to DNA found at a crime scene. Leading genetic genealogists are sharply divided as to whether law enforcement should be able to use citizen DNA and in what circumstances, and are also divided as to whether Doe cases should be treated differently. Each ‘side’ is convinced of their rightness. One thing that is clear is that this affects everyone, everywhere, not just US citizens. Given this current state of affairs, all we can do is decide where we stand, and act accordingly.
Why I am so invested in this
I started volunteering for the DNA Doe Project in Autumn 2018. I didn’t keep it a secret, but I didn’t advertise the fact either. As time has gone on, I have become more comfortable with being public about the work I do for them, in an effort to educate interested folk about how we do what we do, and to advocate for people uploading their DNA to Gedmatch in an effort to help identify John and Jane Does.
The reason I got involved with the DNA Doe Project was personal to me; I had become aware of some missing person cases from Charlottesville, Virginia, a town where I was an exchange student for some-time. I was hyper aware of women going missing in that small town, since in September 2006, my roommate suddenly went missing. I had been in Charlottesville for about six weeks, and all of a sudden, my roommate was just not there anymore.
She was not a Doe. She was “lucky” in that regard. She was found a couple of days after she had gone missing, murdered by a man who essentially killed her for her car. She was 22 years old.
That was the day my world changed. I’m not going to pretend I was close to her, I barely knew her, hadn’t got the chance to, but when someone very vibrant, and very young, who was inhabiting your space suddenly is just not there anymore, something just shifts. Seeing a mother and a sister who have lost their loved one purely because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time makes you realise that bad things can happen anyone.
My roommate was able to be put to rest, her killer was caught, and her mother knew what had happened to her.
Morgan Harrington’s (Morgan went missing in 2009 in Charlottesville) mother had to wait over a year until her daughter’s body was found, and far longer until her murderer was caught. Unfortunately, Hannah Graham, yet another young Charlottesville woman, had to die, in 2014, at his hands in order for that to happen. Alexis Murphy, another young Charlottesville woman who went missing in 2013, has never been found; though enough evidence was found to convict her murderer.
Nothing will ever bring back any of these young women.
We can’t give their loved one’s closure, I don’t think such a thing exists.
But if there’s anything I can do to give a name back to an unidentified body (there are approximately 40,000 unidentified bodies in the US alone as at the time of writing), then I want to do it. If there’s anything I can do to bring them ‘home’ to their family (whether that be their blood family or the family they chose for themselves), then I want to do that too. And I’d love for you to want to do that too.
What Gedmatch Opt-In Means in Practice
The DNA Doe Project has already done so much good. And they are not the only ones fighting this fight, as well as using DNA to identify perpetrators of crime, Parabon takes on Doe cases too, so do other genetic genealogists.
Going forward, Genealogists who do this kind of work are not going to be successful in identifying people unless people voluntarily submit their DNA to a database that can be accessed for cases like these. Right now, that means Gedmatch and FamlyTreeDNA. So, I’m therefore going to plead with you to opt-in. It doesn’t matter where in the world you’re from, your DNA could be the key to a case.
BUT. I would be irresponsible if I didn’t tell you what that means.
It means that your DNA data is accessible for researchers like me who are researching John and Jane Does.
It means that your DNA data is accessible for researchers who are aiming to identify the perpetrator of crime. Under Gedmatch’s latest terms that could mean murder, rape or serious sexual assault. It could mean manslaughter, robbery or violent (non-sexual) assault.
But that’s not all.
It means your DNA data is potentially accessible to anyone anywhere using Gedmatch for any purpose if they are related to you, or have your kit number.
The above assumes people are behaving ethically within the terms set by Gedmatch. But. Gedmatch is a public database. Literally, anyone can access it, from anywhere in the world. The only way to keep your DNA data 100% private is to not have your DNA data on there. Sure, you can mark it private, but then there’s no point it being there, or you can mark it research, and then no one knows it’s there but you can still use Gedmatch’s tools, but again, if someone else knows your Gedmatch Kit reference number, they can run exactly the same tools on your DNA data as you can.
I can almost guarantee that someone somewhere is using the site for less than ethical reasons because shady people will continue to be shady people.
So, my point is, in deciding whether you want to help identify Does, assume that if someone gets hold of your kit number, or there might be someone shady in your match list, they might be doing something unethnical on Gedmatch.
If you decide you want to help, protect yourself by using a non-identifiable alias and email address, and if you have any form of family tree on there, make the first few generations private (other genetic genealogists will probably be rolling their eyes at me right now, because I’m making our job so much harder, but frankly I’d rather you were on there than not, and if this is the way you are on there, so be it). And if you just don’t want to take the risk, then I’m cool with that too, no guilt tripping from me.
A note specifically regarding genetic genealogy for identifying Does: Although FamilyTreeDNA is utilisable for Doe cases, sometimes the raw DNA we have is so degraded we just can’t use FamilyTreeDNA, sometimes there is no funding for the case to be uploaded to FamilyTreeDNA. For those reasons, right now (June 2019) we have more success at Gedmatch. Things may of course change as technology does.
How to opt-in
(1) Go to https://www.gedmatch.com.
(2) In the User Profile Box, scroll down to your DNA Kit, and click the pencil icon.
(3) On the Kit Profile Management page that will appear, scroll down to the ‘Public Profile’ row. Click the radio button for ‘Public, with Law Enforcement Access’, then click ‘Change’.
(4) A message will pop up confirming the change has happened.
When you go back to the main page, you should see a little ‘Police’ icon (like in the image under (1)) confirming that Kit can be seen for law enforcement purposes.
Not uploaded your DNA to Gedmatch.com yet but want to help?
First, download your raw DNA from whichever site you used to get your DNA results.
- How to download your raw DNA from Ancestry
- How to download your raw DNA from 23andMe
- How to download your raw DNA from My Heritage
- How to download your raw DNA from LivingDNA
- FamilyTreeDNA – within your FamilyFinder test results area, simply click the link for ‘download raw data’
Then upload your DNA to Gedmatch:
To upload your DNA to Gedmatch, on the main page, on the right-hand side, you’ll see a section entitled ‘Upload your DNA Kits’. For all but new FamilyTreeDNA kits, you can use the ‘generic upload’ link, very new FamilyTreeDNA kits should use the newer link.
You’ll get sent to a form to fill out; fill out the name of the person and the alias you want that person to be known by in Gedmatch. Click the relevant gender button (as to what the person’s gender was at birth). Enter the test company information if you have it.
Then, select the relevant radio button for why you are uploading the DNA – this will usually be one of the first three options for the majority of users.
In the next section, you can choose your privacy options – select opt-in for public and opted into law enforcement matching, opt-out for public but not opted into law enforcement matching. If you don’t want your DNA to be public, select research. There’s also an option for Private, but really this setting isn’t useful for anyone, so I don’t recommend it.
Select ‘choose file’ and navigate to where you saved your raw DNA on your computer, and select that file. Then click upload.
The next part will take a while; don’t click away or refresh the page, just let it do its thing! Eventually, you’ll get a confirmation page that looks like this:
You can start using all the tools at Gedmatch within about 24-48 hours, and your kit will be accessible to others from that point also.
Note, in my experience the best success for finding matches with Doe kits are with kits from Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA or older 23andMe kits. But do not let that deter you from uploading if you only have another kind of kit.
How to check your opt-in settings at FamilyTreeDNA
If you have a FamilyTreeDNA kit and want to check if you’ve been opted-in to law enforcement matching there, go to the very top right-hand corner where your kit name is, and hover over it, then click on ‘account settings’.
Click the tab for Privacy and Sharing.
Scroll down to ‘Matching Preferences’. Check your kit is opted into matching (the slider should be blue and pointed to the right). Then underneath that, you’ll see the section for law enforcement matching. Read through the information, then if you’re happy, click the opt-in slider so it is blue.
Note: if you’re in the US, or indeed anywhere but the EU, this will be blue already. If you’re in the EU and bought a kit you should be opted out automatically (if you uploaded another company’s DNA to FamilyTreeDNA but are in the EU you will likely show as opted-in unless you provided them with your EU address).
For more about privacy and DNA, here’s my previous article on the subject.
A word about opting-in other people
Simply put – don’t do it, unless you have their express agreement. If you manage kits for anyone else, ensure you have their permission to opt-in to law enforcement matching, and that they understand what that means. If you manage a kit for a person who is now deceased, then legally they have no right to privacy. But ethically I would encourage you to do what you feel would have been in accordance with their wishes; if you aren’t sure on that, talk to their loved ones.
My hope is that a decade from now we’ll be looking back at this time and be rolling our eyes. Science and technology will continue to change the boundaries of what is possible and will continue to intersect with traditional forms of research. There will be a citizen DNA database that people are willing and happy to submit their data to, whose only use is to give identities back to Does. Maybe there will even be the same thing for criminal cases. There will be clear and agreed guidelines and there will be no more divide between camps of genealogists. What, I can dream, can’t I?
If you decided to opt-in because of this article, from the bottom of my heart, thank you. If you decide to share this article so others can try to decide if they should opt-in, thank you.