The genetic genealogy world is abuzz following a recent report in news outlets around the world (including CNN, Seattle PI, Daily Mail, etc) that investigators have used public genetic genealogy DNA databases for leads in a 20-year-old cold case.
In December 1991, 16-year-old Sarah Yarborough was tragically murdered in Federal Way, Washington. Despite an extensive investigation, no suspect has ever been named. Investigators have sketches of a man they believe might have been involved, but there is no name to put to the pictures.
Investigators did find some important evidence however: DNA left at the scene, possibly by Yarborough’s attacker.
Late last year, investigators gave the DNA profile (apparently the Y-DNA profile) to California-based forensic consultant Colleen Fitzpatrick (who I’ve written about before here on TGG). Fitzpatrick, it appears, compared the Y-DNA profile to publicly-available Y-DNA databases, such as Ysearch, in an attempt to identify a potential match for the profile. After identifying potential matches, Fitzpatrick could then potentially identify the surname of the Y-DNA’s donor. For example, if all Bettingers have a particular Y-DNA profile and a sample Y-DNA profile closely matches that particular Y-DNA profile, then it is likely that the parties are either closely or distantly related (on a scale of 10s or 1000s of years), and they could potentially have the same surname.
Therefore, by comparing an unknown’s Y-DNA profile to public databases, it is possible to find matches and potentially identify a surname for the owner of that Y-DNA (but see “The Caveats,” below).
Fitzpatrick’s research determined that the suspect’s Y-DNA profile appears to match the Y-DNA profiles of individuals with the surname “Fuller.” Although unclear without more information, it further appears that the suspect’s Y-DNA profile specifically matches the Y-DNA profiles of purported descendants of Robert Fuller, who settled in Salem, Mass. in 1630.
Accordingly, Fitzpatrick’s research has merely suggested that the suspect MIGHT have the surname Fuller. Nothing more, nothing less. It is merely a lead, something that investigators will have to devote countless hours to following up on. The lead has not provided investigators with a magical solution to their mystery, and following this discovery they are likely not all that much closer to identifying a suspect that they were before.
It is important to note that there are some serious caveats to this process. Just because an unknown Y-DNA profile matches a group of surnames in a database does not automatically mean that the unknown Y-DNA donor had the same surname. Non-paternal events such as infidelity, adoption, name change, and others can – and have – resulted in surnames being jumbled throughout history. Thus, simply matching the unique Bettinger profile does not mean that your last name might be Bettinger; it could be Samuels as a result of great-grandpa’s roving eye, Smith as a result of your step-great-great-grandmother’s love for orphans, or Johnson because your father was tired of people spelling “Bettinger” wrong. For all these reasons surnames have changed over time.
It is even more vital to note, however, that Fitzpatrick’s research process is absolutely neither a new nor a groundbreaking technique! It is a familiar technique that has been done MANY times before, and continues to be done. People – including non-genealogists – have used public databases to attempt to identify their surname and/or family. Indeed, Family Tree DNA itself has noted that male adoptees have a 30-40% chance of identifying a likely surname by comparing their Y-DNA profile to FTDNA’s database (see here: “During the introduction Max [Blankfeld] stated that 30%-40% of male adoptees find their likely surname in FTDNA’s database”).
Some, including both experienced genetic genealogists and people who have never had a DNA test, have expressed concern that their DNA was or could be used for this purpose, a purpose that it “wasn’t intended to be used for.” Some have stated that the search constituted an “illegal seizure” of their property, or that their DNA should not be used by “big brother.”
Further, as the ISOGG mailing list for project adminstrators has demonstrated, many project administrators are concerned that this hullabaloo will scare away potential test-takers.
Despite the concerns of the public, genetic genealogists, and project administrators, Fitzpatrick’s process is neither a new technique nor a frightening one. It has been done before. Further, Fitzpatrick’s process is simply a new twist on an old method. How is Fitzpatrick’s DNA search different, for example, from any of the following (and please don’t throw any genetic exceptionalism arguments my way!):
- Using a public reverse-phone lookup to identify the owner of a phone number? I didn’t authorize my phone number for that use;
- Searching through a public phone book to identify all the Bettingers in New York state? I didn’t authorize my phone book listing for that purpose;
- Using the census to identify my ancestors? I guarantee that NONE of my ancestors authorized the use of the census for genealogical research (indeed, just think of ALL the secrets that have been revealed in the census that our ancestors would have wanted buried forever!).
Interestingly, genealogists happen to be the biggest offenders of using public databases for purposes other than the one they were intended.
One of the most interesting points to me is where some genealogists have decided to draw their line in the sand. Comparing a person’s Y-DNA profile to public databases is fine if the person is an adoptee searching for his last name, but not if the person is a criminal that investigators need to identify.
I also believe that project administrators are overly concerned. These types of stories come and go, and this one will fade away just as all the others have. We are (I sincerely hope) heading into an era of genetic openness, not one of genetic fear.
Lastly, the answer to this dilemma is, as always, education. We have to educate the public and potential test-takers that if they decide to make their Y-DNA public, it will be public for any purpose any person sees fit. They should understand this when they send in their cheek swab. The danger to test-takers, however, is almost nil; a public Y-DNA profile is either incomprehensible or useless for 99.99% of the world. And keep in mind that if a criminal is identified using this method, it is the criminal activity that endangered him, NOT the public Y-DNA databases!
What I’m really looking for here is a conversation about the pluses and minuses of Fitzpatrick’s method and the use of public DNA databases. Are there valid concerns, or only concerns due to the lack of education? Why do you believe these methods are different from non-traditional uses of other public databases such as the examples I listed above? Why do you think people might be afraid of this use of their public DNA? And how can we better education test-takers and the public to avoid these types of concerns?
[Note: I will immediately delete any comment that is aimed at Fitzpatrick herself. She did not invent these search methods, and should not be held responsible for their use. I’m looking for comments about the method, not the investigator].