Some states also collect DNA from those arrested on felony and misdemeanor charges. These datasets are stored in the FBI-operated Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. California has its own similar statewide system, which as of 2009 includes the DNA of those arrested on any felony charge.
With these databases, law enforcement can run DNA against them to find matches or generate leads. With rare exceptions, CODIS was not developed to assist in the investigation of a family tree. Now, private companies have changed the game and expanded the data pool to include people with no criminal histories and looped in extended family members with no knowledge that they are in a perpetual genetic lineup.
These private databases have been around since at least 2000, which is when direct-to-consumer sales of the DNA tests began. Led by companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com, the products let customers—through a mouth swab or spit—receive raw and analyzed data about their DNA. These companies collect more genetic markers than CODIS, including height, geographic ancestry or whether an individual carries a genetic disease or is a product of incest.
Once in possession of their DNA data, consumers can upload it to websites like GEDmatch and Family Tree DNA, which allow for people and law enforcement to search for missing relatives or suspects.
“You’re reverse-engineering a family tree,” says Leah Larkin, a genealogist and founder of The DNA Geek, which helps people find missing relatives. “It’s a lot like putting a puzzle together.”
Not just built on DNA, this technique includes public documents, news clippings, social media and other documents to re-create a family tree.
Through their growth in popularity over the last decade, DNA testing companies boasted 26 million users as of the end of 2018, according to the MIT Technology Review. Today, the databases are so robust that 60% of Americans with European ancestry are identifiable from DNA within these databases, according to research published in Science in 2018. That number is expected to jump to 90% in just a few years, researchers say.
This increased data pool has opened up a new avenue for law enforcement and genealogists to find fresh leads for investigations that long ago went cold, which also brought increased attention.
“Since the Golden State Killer case broke, it’s been an ongoing wildfire of media interest and public interest,” says Larkin, who does not take criminal genealogy cases for ethical reasons related to informed consent and government overreach. “Genetic genealogy was a sleepy little backwater hobby prior to that.”
Larkin is referencing the April 2018 arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo—the “Golden State Killer”—who was charged with eight counts of murder related to a prolific number of rapes, murders and burglaries committed in California between 1976 and 1986. With prosecutors seeking the death penalty, the trial is ongoing.
High-profile or not, forensic genealogy is used to develop leads to investigate a person and has so far not been used to generate probable cause warrants, which makes the technique hard to challenge in court.
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