The Lost Family-S1 23

Libby Copeland is an award-winning journalist and author of The Lost Family:  How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are.  After penning an article in the Washington Post about a “just-for-fun DNA test” gone wrong, Libby immersed herself in the fascinating world of consumer ancestry DNA testing. She joins Crime Redefined to discuss her book, the application of genetic genealogy to criminal investigations, and privacy issues surrounding DNA testing.  Hosted by Dion Mitchell and Mehul Anjaria.  A Zero Cliff Media production.

 

The Lost Family

Unofficial Transcript

B=Show Bumpers

DM=Dion Mitchell, Co-host

MA=Mehul Anjaria, Co-host

LC=Libby Copeland, Guest

B

Welcome to the Crime Redefined podcast produced by Zero Cliff Media coming to you from the US Bank tower high above downtown Los Angeles. In our podcast, we drill deep into forensics and criminal investigation from the viewpoint of the defense as well as explore the intersection of the media and the justice system.

DM

I’m Dion Mitchell here with my cohost Mehul Anjaria. We hope all of our listeners are faring as well as can be expected during this historic pandemic and that our podcast is providing you with some escape. On this episode of crime redefined, we have the privilege of speaking with Libby Copeland, author of the new book The Lost Family: How DNA is Upending Who We Are.

MA

Libby is a former staff reporter and editor for The Washington Post. She now writes for a variety of publications including the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Smithsonian magazine. Libby has appeared on CNN, MSNBC and NPR. In 2008, she presented a talk entitled A Secret In the Blood at the Jewish Genealogical Society of greater Boston’s conference.

DM

Libby’s book is an unflinching look at the sometimes-unintended consequences of submitting your DNA to consumer ancestry sites. It features some heart-wrenching stories as well as an excellent discussion of the legal, ethical and moral issues surrounding this new DNA age we find ourselves in.

MA

Dion, I think that this book should be required reading for anyone who is involved in investigative genetic genealogy in criminal matters. And I say that because it does a great job detailing the history of consumer DNA testing, as well as genetic genealogy. And in the book, you see the slow evolution towards its use in criminal investigations, and on top of that, it’s a wonderful primer of all of the issues, ethical, privacy, what have you that using genetic genealogy raises. As they say, there’s nothing new under the sun. And forensics is just now adapting this technique that has been used for other purposes for a very, very long time.

DM

You know, Mehul, I’m going to go a little bit further with you. I think anyone remotely thinking about, and I’m going to use Libby’s terminology ‘spitting in the tube’ should read this book, because it’s literally it’s an overused phrase- will make your head explode by what’s in there. So with all of that, and I think we’ve got everybody set up. Let’s get on with our discussion with with Libby.

MBA

Welcome to Crime Redefined, Libby.

LC

Oh, thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.

MBA

Well, we’re so honored to have you on today to discuss your, what I think is, a very well researched and thought-provoking book.

LC

Thank you so much. Yeah, I really enjoyed writing it. It was just an incredible experience. And I learned so much from writing it.

MBA

Well, to get our listeners into the world that you paint in this book, I want to have you first define some terms for us. So, the first one is what is a seeker?

LC

Yeah, so a seeker is a term that I used to describe the categories of people that I was writing about. So it’s not an official term. You won’t see it in any genetic genealogy handbooks. But it was the term that I came up with to describe the kind of obsessive and you know, wonderfully rich, searching for self and for family that happens to a lot of people, either because they do DNA testing, and they realize there’s a question kind of in the results like a question they never could have foreseen that they now need answered or because they go into DNA testing with a question for instance an adoptee looking for birth family. And so it kind of could work both ways. And very often, there’s a kind of process of tumbling down a rabbit hole where you’re, you’re finding out things that you never could have conceived of, you’re understanding your own origin story, you’re coming to know who your genetic kin are. So that’s that’s how I think of a seeker.

MBA

So in the book, you mentioned how a seeker will often work with a search angel to assist in this process, kind of tell us what a search angel is and how they help the seeker out?

LC

Yeah, so search angels have been around for some time. They’ve been working with autosomal DNA for 10 years. And one of the largest groups that they have traditionally worked with have been folks who are adopted. And so search angels typically are volunteer, they’re all very often women. And they’re kind of driven by a sense that, you know, that it’s everyone’s right to know their own genetic identity if they want to know it, and so they will work with a person in terms of getting their DNA tested and understanding the results. So looking at those lists of genetic relatives and trying to piece together who that person’s birth parents might be, or if they’re searching for, say, a half sibling or cousin, who, you know, how do you figure that out? And they work with those genetic segments that the seeker has in common with relatives and they work on creating as well, family trees. And in that way, put the information together to understand whatever it is that the question the question is, that the person is trying to have answered.

MA

So sometimes a search angel will help the seeker find out that there is NPE. Now what is that?

LC

So an NPE traditionally has been for non-paternity event, that’s the kind of you know, wonkish term that you see used in academic articles. And by genetic genealogists traditionally, and now it’s sometimes known as not parent expected, but you know, non paternity event means essentially an interruption in the male line. And colloquially as people use it when they’re talking about DNA, it means finding out your dad’s not genetically related to you, or more broadly, perhaps that your mom’s not genetically related to or both parents if, for instance, as you know, one book I one story, I tell them the book, a woman discovers that she’s adopted through DNA testing, so she discovers that neither of her parents is genetically related to her. But traditionally, the way it plays out is, is that a person discovers that their father’s not genetically related to them. And that’s a pretty profound piece of information to find out especially if you’ve embarked on DNA testing sort of on a lark, just because you will curious to get an ethnicity estimate and then you have this really weighty result waiting for you when you click through to your results on the computer.

MA

So final definition, I want to shift gears and go into the philosophical aspect of your book. Libby, how would you define genetic essentialism?

LC

So the way I’ve looked at it in my book, and with regard to the way that people use commercial DNA testing is that they tend to read too much into their genes and how much their genes get to have a say in predicting their future. So it’s this sort of sense that genes can be fate. And that, and also, when you think about things like ethnicity and race, there’s a sense that, you know, that everything that has to do with our differences from one another all boil down to biology, and that these rules are sort of very strict and really delineate great differences from one another. So you know, it’s a kind of a problematic way of thinking and it’s a very binary way of thinking and there are times when the marketing that you see the ads that you see around commercial DNA testing and how it talks about ethnicity can be kind of a reinforcing of that sense of genetic essentialism in ways that some people find troubling.

DM

Another question and kind of more about you, you wrote an article when you were with the Washington Post- Who Was She-A DNA Test Only Opens New Mysteries that inspired this book. I’m wondering if you had any personal experiences prior to writing the book in your own testing and genealogy.

LC

I hadn’t. My family had been into genealogy for a while, my father in particular had been doing his genealogy going back to the 80s when there was no DNA and there was no internet that he could use. And both my parents had done the National Geographic DNA test, which was something that was kind of popular in the early 2000s. So we had dabbled in it. I had some familiarity with it, and I actually had just been gifted DNA kit from my dad and it was sitting on top of my microwave. And I was thinking about doing this. It was sitting there as I was starting to do this article, and then I realized I should really test it and see what the experience is like so that I was ready for that knowledge.

DM

So the article, The Washington Post article was really the kickoff thing, essentially, the kickoff for this book.

LC

Yeah, it was the kickoff because I’ve been writing for a long time about the intersection of science and culture and technology and culture, right? How does technology sort of shape who we are and how we behave? And I was very interested in how DNA testing can provoke surprises, can provoke revelation of identity. And so that’s sort of how I came into it with that those questions about, you know, how DNA can inform who we are?

MA

Well, Libby, the consensus in the book seems to be that if you take a DNA test, and as a result, you learn of a family secret, that in the end, it’s best to just tell the affected party. Why ultimately, is that the better route to take?

LC

Um, you know, I think people differ on this. I think the upshot is that maybe five years ago, you could have gotten into a really good debate about sort of what’s the right way to handle this information? And the best way, you know, should you withhold it? Or should you have a kind of a big family transparency conversation over the, you know, kitchen table and talk about it? And those questions are still really important. The problem is that in the last five years, the databases have grown so much, that it’s now almost a question not of if, but when a secret comes out. And so it’s, it’s putting a lot of people in a place where they have to kind of get ahead of the information and they have to disclose before say the other person decides to test and find out on their own that they’re information that you held back. So you know, the question, it’s almost like a question of a practical matter if you know the other person is going to find out a long standing family secret by testing possibly themselves or through the grapevine at some point in the future, would it be better that it come from you from your lips, than that they find out and then find out you’ve kept it from them? So that’s, sort of why a lot of people are saying now better off to have those conversations earlier rather than later.

MA

And to follow up as you did your research for the book, did you find any differences in receptiveness to genetic surprises along religious lines?

LC

Oh, that’s a really good question. Um, you know, I’m so interested in that. I don’t think I did, but I’m really curious why you ask that.

DM

Well, I actually I noticed it. I kept reading and seeing the different you know, the Jewish religion and the, the Catholic religion and I started to see actually a trend or at least I thought I saw a trend between the different groups on who was more receptive. And so I just thought it was going to be an interesting question to ask you to see if you had to take.

LC

That’s really interesting. You know, I didn’t notice it, but I kind of wasn’t looking at it through that lens. So now I’m curious, I’m going to start thinking about the people who I interviewed and whether that was the case.

DM

Well, you know, yeah, actually, it wasn’t really it wasn’t trying to make, like a religious question or statement, but I just started to see a trend. And I’m just wondering if there was a particular group that was, you know, like I said, more receptive. And then actually, I want to build on that a little bit. Your book makes it clear that consumer DNA testing can reveal, obviously, hidden family secrets. What sort of support resources are out there for the seekers and the seekees that are impacted by this, you know, disturbing DNA test results?

LC

Yeah, that’s one of the most important questions right now. And it’s a question unfortunately, without a whole lot of answers because there isn’t a whole lot of support for people. It’s one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about and talking a lot about is the need for psychological support for people in these situations. There’s a handful of psychologists who’ve started specializing in, you know, helping people who say, uncover a DNA surprise and the particular trauma that can go along with discovering, for instance, that you’re not related to one of your parents. There’s, for instance, 23andme, maybe about six months ago put up something called a navigating unexpected relationships page, where they directed people to a few resources, like there’s a genetic counselor that they could talk to. One in particular specializes in this. And they also talked about, you know, directing people to like online therapy programs, but basically there isn’t really much and for the most part to support that has grown up for people has been in Facebook groups. So there are many, many Facebook groups that are dedicated to all kinds of genetics surprises and different types of surprises and different kind of emotional aspects or are you interested in the logistics of figuring out the answer to your own mystery? Are you interested in discussing the emotional ramifications? Well, there’s a group for each of those. And so, you know, it’s kind of like a homegrown thing. And it’s in my in my opinion, it’s one of the greater bioethical issues right now is how do we support people? How do we help them have conversations with one another? How do we help them have conversations with the people that they are seeking out or may or may not want to be found? And there’s not there’s not a whole lot out there yet that exists for the literally millions of people who are being affected by this.

DM

That’s a great answer. And it actually kind of leads me to my next comment. I wondering going forward legislatively if they’ll mandate any new companies or retroactively put that in because it felt like to me reading this that they built a really fast car and didn’t give you any brakes?

LC

Yeah, they did build a really fast car. That’s a good point at the same time. I mean, sort of it almost feels like too late for that. And what I know about I don’t know the culture around this and American culture and our taste for regulation, that doesn’t seem like something that would be likely to happen. So I have a feeling that it’s going to be private industry that steps in. So for instance, psychologists who decide that they’re going to specialize in there’s going to be a new subspecialty. And it’s going to be you know, the trauma of discovering that you are the product of an NPE and that like literally that is already starting to exist specifically psychologists who specialize in just that.

MA

Well, speaking of psychology, just the other day, I saw an article that you had written in Psychology Today, entitled On Its 20th Anniversary, DNA Testing Reaches a Tipping Point. And I thought that was just really an excellent distillation of a lot of the issues that you brought up in the book.

LC

Yeah, I mean, it literally the first tests were sent out exactly 20 years ago, there’s a company down in Houston called Family Tree DNA and they sent out their first test kits in April of 2000.

MA

I’m just gonna have you kind of continue that timeline. So since the first consumer kit was available, can you kind of walk us through the history in the last 20 years of consumer DNA testing and some of the major milestones that have been hit?

LC

Sure. And keep in mind, I’m talking here about commercial DNA testing for ancestry purposes, not necessarily for other things like proving paternity with like the kit you get in Walgreens, if you’re going to take it for a legal paternity test. I’m not necessarily talking about medical testing, like 23andme, although they are bundled in with that because they also offer ancestry testing. But the first million kits or the first million tests that were taken happened around 2013. So from 2000 to 2013. It takes 13 years to even get up to 1 million. So think about that we’re now at over 30 million. So we went from about 1 million in aggregate in 2013 to over 30,000,000 7 years later, that’s like an astonishing rise. The bulk of the kinds of testing the commercial DNA testing for ancestry purposes between 2000 and 2010 was primarily Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA was much less useful for the average genealogist and certainly for the average non genealogists who just looking to find out their ethnicity estimate. It’s really not that helpful unless you’re really serious family historian and you have a very specific question, say along your paternal line then Y DNA might be helpful. autosomal DNA and makes it sort of starts out really being useful in 2009 and 2010. And ancestry offers its own test in 2012 Then you start to see things really coming along. few other milestones I like to think about are 2018. When you see the Golden State killer case, which was a case that was solved through the use of genetic genealogy and quasi-public DNA databases. And more recently, you’ve seen a sort of a slowdown in sales. And that’s kind of an interesting topic too. And you’ve seen a pivot from some of the companies to it from away from just doing ancestry towards bundling ancestry with testing for like, health related risks and traits and things like that things that 23andme long offered, now companies like ancestry and my heritage are moving into that space.

DM

You know, one of the other, I guess, big points that I took away from your book was the issues with DNA testing that helped unearth when babies are accidentally switched at birth in the hospital. And I was wondering how often did, and does that actually occur?

LC

There are no statistics. I would love to know, there have been a number of cases from the 40s that I’ve seen in the news and some going further back. And there are some that are more recent. You even see them in, you know, the last few decades. I think I saw some from the 80s there may have been some more recent I’m not sure. So, you know, it’s definitely something that would be fascinating to research and I tried to find out the answer to myself and I couldn’t find any good data on it.

DM

You know, two quick follow up comments on that one.  Reading that story, you know, Alice’s story was heartbreaking, you know, of the what ifs and could have been, if that didn’t take place and to the visual mosaic that you get reading that about the hospital in 1913 in the Bronx is incredible. I mean, you really painted a great picture of what care and in birthing looked like in that time period.

LC

Yeah, thank you so much. The history research for this book was really fascinating because the protagonist of the book, Alice, the woman who I wrote about for The Washington Post, and then I revisit her story for the book and tell it in much greater detail. She tested in 2012, the dawn of the consumer genomics era and found this mystery would she was not expecting she thought she was almost entirely Irish American, she turned out to be half Ashkenazi Jewish, and she couldn’t understand why. And as I recount in the book, you know, it takes her two and a half years to understand why and it’s not any of the expected explanations. It’s not it’s not the more common explanations. It’s not, for instance, a non-paternity event in her case. And as it turns out, the beginnings of her genetic mysteries go back 100 years. And so that allowed me to look at, for instance, certain themes that played into the explanation of her story like some of the immigrant groups that were living in a certain area in the Bronx 100 years before and maternity wards and things like that. And that was just absolutely amazing. I live not far from the Bronx. So I was really interested in understanding, you know how immigrant culture was like the immigrants who are leaving the tenements downtown and moving up into the Bronx because it was the place to be you could afford it and there was space. So that was like one of the most fascinating things to dig into.

MA

Libby you recounted a study in the book, where researchers at the Arizona State University, were looking to see if there was a genetic component to diabetes in the Havasupai Native American population. Talk to us about what went wrong with that study. And as a consequence, what issues were raised with regards to informed consent and privacy?

LC

Yeah, that’s a really good question. This is a case that I thought kind of presciently predicted some of the themes that we’re now seeing and it happened you know, quite some time ago. Over a decade ago, this was a case where researchers were helping this Native American group understand whether there might be a genetic component to diabetes, which was very common within their community. And there’s been disputes over what really happened and it’s been the subject of legal issues and ultimately a settlement. But the Havasupai said that they gave consent for research into diabetes, and that and that’s it and nothing else. And what ultimately happened was that the researcher started to look into issues, genetic issues within the blood samples that they had from the Havasupai, you know, pertaining to other issues, among them, the origins of their people, so where they have come from how they have gotten to where they lived in the Grand Canyon. And one of the problems with that, from the point of view of the people who had given their their DNA was that they had never consented, to use of their DNA to study something that really conflicted with their spiritual beliefs. They had a spiritual belief that they had arisen from that area. And science was being used to basically negate something that was incredibly sacred to them. And what was interesting to me about that, in addition to everything, it tells us about issues of, you know, having to get consent and say, here’s how I’m going to use your DNA. And are you are you on board with all of this, but it also has to do with things that you can’t foresee. And we’re in a situation now where you might test at a company. And you might agree with their privacy policy, but 20 years down the line, they might go sold to another company with a totally different consent and privacy policies. And then what does that mean for your DNA and how it’s used and will you even have the opportunity to say yes, I agree to this or no, I don’t, I think so.

DM

Yeah, but that’s a really great point because  that opens up a whole another you know, can of worms because you can’t forecast in 10 years if the company is sold, and where that could lead to,you kind of just don’t know where it’s going. And you also don’t know if there could theoretically at some point be some sort of a breach that causes an information hack that causes your information to be revealed in some way.

LC

How damaging that would be is an open question. They might, you know, might be the case that somebody having your social security number actually has, you know, more information that’s useful to them and harmful to you than having your genetic information. But, you know, obviously, that is a concern. So having your information out there. The other thing that interested me about the Havasupai story is that we all have kind of sacred truths, things that things that we cling to because they mean a lot to us because they’re part of our origin story, our personal origin story, or the things that we really, really value and there are times when DNA can seem to be in conflict with that DNA tells you that, you know, your father had a relationship outside of marriage and had another child and you have a half sister, and what does that mean to you in terms of relationship with their father and everything it says about your father’s relationship with your mother, and now you have to have this conversation. It’s, it’s really painful. And it’s not always painful it can be. It can be life affirming. It can be wonderful. It’s just that it depends on the circumstances and everyone sort of can be affected within a family in a little bit of a different way. So it’s just incredibly profound information that we can now get for the cost of $99 for very, very little investment, sort of testing on a lark, and people are not always prepared for the ways that those results can upend everything that they believe up to that point.

DM

That’s an interesting way of putting it for $99 you can turn your life and everybody around us life upside down. How accurate are the so-called ethnicity percentages in consumer DNA testing. And what differences between the companies are there? I know sometimes they are even amended?

LC

Yeah, they’re good, but they’re not perfect. They’re getting better. If you’d asked me five years ago, I would have said they’re okay. But you know, they’re, they’re not great. And now I can say they’re good, but they’re not perfect. I mean, they’re getting better all the time. Um, there was a speaker that I saw at a conference a few years ago from one of the companies who said that it’s a young and evolving science. And I think that’s, that’s the case. I mean, you’re, you’re pretty much can count on their continent level predictions, and very often, their country level predictions are pretty good, but there are things that they can’t always see. And that’s why you’ll get slightly different results depending on the company. There’s all sorts of issues having to do with borders changing and borders being porous and more and migration that make it difficult to say whether for instance, your you know, your genetic ancestry is French or German and so they’ll have to kind of lump it into a big category and as consumers, we are usually expecting you know, very neat and simple answers and and we just can’t get there with the way that history is so complicated. We can’t always get there at this point in time. But pretty much if you’re, you know, if your test gives you a very high percentage of ancestry from Europe, and Western Europe say you can pretty much count on that being the case. And same is true for the other large continent level predictions, but the predictions are much better for people of white European descent, than for those from other places, Africa, Asia, Latin folks of Latin descent, the results are often not as granular so you get sort of wide swaths, rather than specific territories or countries.

MA

Well, Libby, I’m gonna put you on the spot just a little bit here. If you were to write the click wrap terms and conditions on the website of a consumer genetic testing firm, what would be some of the key language that you would include in terms of the warnings?

LC

Yeah, that’s good. Um, you know, one of the things that they do tend to warn about and in some cases, some of the companies could maybe make this warning more than they do is just to kind of give you a heads up that you may discover unexpected relationships, or there may be things that change your perception of your family. How helpful those warnings are. You know, I think they’re very important to give, although I’m not sure if anyone ever thinks that it will happen to them, which is one of the problems. But I do think it’s important to get that out there. I also think that, you know, it’s important for people who are taking these tests to think about the ways in which they don’t know what will happen to their information. So for instance, you may want to read through a long privacy policy and then realize that it’s 10,000 words long and you can’t, and so to the extent that a company can kind of take those key points and some of them do a better job of this than others and kind of bullet point them. That’s very helpful. I found that I read a number of these privacy policies, which took me hours and was incredibly confusing there, they use legal terminology, they use terms that they say are going to be find in another document, you have to go look them up. So I mean, if you’re wondering, for instance, like how protected your data is, that’s something they can sort of say in a bullet point, and they could also very say, this could be changed at any time and we, you know, we will notify you by email. And if we get bought by another company, at some point down the road, that company may have a different policy and some of the companies do, like I said, a better job and some a less good job of kind of spelling out basically the unknowns of things that you can’t possibly know at this point in time about the future and how your genetic information is going to be used.

DM

I was reading some of the comments in some of the chapters in your book about that, and it, it really made me because I was thinking about, you know, jumping into this game and it made me really nervous of know, the downstream, what will happen to my information?

LC

I think one of the other questions is genetic discrimination. There’s a big question for some people about how your information could be used against you if you decide that you want to get purchase like life insurance or disability insurance. So there’s there is federal protection for certain things. But that federal protection has loopholes. So for employment and for health insurance, that you know, your DNA information, your genetic information is not supposed to be used against you, although even that I mean, there’s, there’s all sorts of loopholes that could theoretically be a problem, but at the same time that we haven’t seen that play out yet, so it’s it’s an abstract concern at the moment, and it hasn’t been an issue yet, but it could there could be a point in the future where you go and want to purchase life insurance and the company asks you Have you taken a DNA test either at your doctor’s office or through a commercial testing company? And, you know, you have to say, Well, yes, actually, I took an ancestry test a few years back, and then they can ask you what the results are. And if you declined to tell them if you decide to not tell them truth that you took it, in theory, that could be considered fraud. And again, this is a lot of ifs. But this is definitely a concern. I’ve heard from some consumers about why they’re not testing us because they just don’t know how that information could be used and possibly against them. At some point in the future.

 DM

Yeah, I don’t see how you could ever 100% lock that down today, next year, or10 years from now

LC

Yeah, I mean, from the other side of things, like I’ll just tell you I have tested I’ve tested it multiple companies, you know, and so I you know, I do think i think that DNA can also be  the ability to test and to find out your genetic relatives and your own genetic ancestry can be an impressive incredible gift. And that’s why it’s been so popular, not just for family historians and people who’ve been doing this going back to the 1970s. But for, you know, just mainstream people who are kind of casually interested, it’s been a great gift. And I have personally found genetic relatives I would never have found otherwise. And it’s been great. You know, it’s really helped us understand our family history. And so, you know, what I’ve tried to do in the book is really understand both, you know, where the dangers may lie where the precautions are, that we need to voice but also like, why is this? Why are so many people doing this? And what is it that that DNA testing can give us? Otherwise, people wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t have anything to offer. And it does, it has quite a bit to offer. It’s just that for some people, the results don’t kind of play out as expected. And that’s a very interesting thing that I think we need to look at and we need to be talking about.

DM

That actually is a great segue to my next question. In the book, it describes some of the work of the top genealogist and even some amateurs with amazing skills. During your research, did you uncover any hack, or even just plain fraudulent genealogists?

LC

Um, no, although there I did discover that a lot of people who are good at this, sometimes will say that somebody else isn’t so good at it. So there’s there’s a certain amount of competitive spirit. And I think some of that comes out of the fact that there isn’t any kind of, like certification for genetic genealogy or for an or for investigative genetic genealogy, which is, you know, when you’re doing it for crime solving, typically with cold cases, which has become popular since the Golden State killer. You know, there’s no, there might be informal vetting, but there’s no formal process for saying this person’s really good and this person doesn’t know what they’re doing. And it’s all like word of mouth and proving yourself through skill and working on cases until you get good enough. Some people will be really good with working with people of Jewish ancestry and some people will be good with people of African ancestry. And, you know, maybe they’re really good on those and and they’re not good in something else. And someone else is really good with Irish. And so it’s, you know, it’s really an interesting thing. And there’s some there’s some sharp elbows, I’ll say, a few when you talk to people, oh, I, you know, I know that person’s not that great or that person isn’t. She thinks that she is.

MA

Well, I’ve always had the itch to submit my dog’s saliva to a few of the major consumer testing labs. It’s kind of a cross check or a proficiency test. In your research, did you uncover any problems with poor quality or out and out fraud with the actual testing laboratories?

LC

Not with the majors, so the major companies I can’t say I’ve seen that. the major companies are ancestry, and this is an kind of from greatest size database to lowest so there’s ancestry and then just beneath them, they have 16 million 23andme has 10 million My Heritage has somewhere in the three or 4 million and Family Tree DNA has one or 2 million. And for the most part, there might be an occasional problem in the lab, particularly going back to the early days that you hear about, but for the most part, they seem to have their have their stuff together. And you know, they’re not mixing up samples or, you know, getting dog DNA and pronouncing it human. But there are like fly by night companies, for sure. And those companies do operate really fraudulently at times. And in fact, there was a case of a company that was given dog DNA and did treat it as if it were human and did pronounce the you know, the dog to be a certain percentage Native American. And, you know, this clearly seems to be like a mill for producing results along the lines of what people were testing for Native American ancestry by people who were not Native American who possibly wanted to claim benefits fraudulently. And they were basically just handing people what they wanted. And that was a really interesting case that was written about in I believe in a Canadian newspaper. So when you do see that sort of on the margins of the industry.

DM

What are your thoughts on the 23andme COVID-19 study to investigate whether there is any link between the severity of symptoms and the genetic makeup?

LC

I think that the more I think we need to study right now, right, I mean, we’re all we’re all sort of feeling very much behind behind the eight ball. This disease is horrifying and seems to grow more horrifying every time I read about it. I think, Oh, it’s worse than I thought every time. The latest news was about children with symptoms similar to Kawasaki syndrome. We’re being hospitalized in New York State. I mean, it’s just part of So I feel like any kind of research, you know that can be done is probably a good thing in terms of getting us maybe more on pace with the disease and eventually being able to understand it better.

MA

So for my last question, I want to focus on investigative genetic genealogy in the criminal investigation world. And I want to give you a hypothetical, Libby if a criminal defense attorney had a client, who had been identified as a perpetrator of a serious crime through an investigative genetic genealogy hit, and let’s say he or she approached you for advice on how to vet and potentially attack that investigation. What would your recommendations be?

LC

Well, first, I would say I’m not a lawyer. And I would probably point them to some privacy experts who are and so when I was researching this for one of the chapters in my book, I talked to a number of people including Erin Murphy, who’s at NYU and Natalie Ramm who is in Baltimore I’m thinking University of Baltimore. And, you know, I have to say this hasn’t been tested yet. Right? It hasn’t really, it hasn’t really been tested in a court in terms of somebody, a defense attorney attacking the methods, the forensic genealogy methods used to, to identify a criminal or to help identify a criminal. But one of the interesting things that that some legal scholars raise as a concern is this idea that when you go into a database with a criminal sample, looking for relatives to that criminal sample in hopes of identifying, you know, that family and then winnowing down the identity of the criminal, they would suggest that it’s it’s almost like a fishing expedition that you’re that you’re, you’re casting suspicion on this. Ultimately, this criminal without having evidence for that specific person, and that that is a violation of of, you know, of all the constitutional protections that, you know, that the fourth amendment would, would otherwise provide. So, I will say that that is an interesting argument. But I’ll also say that, I don’t know whether it would hold water if it were tested. I mean, even the people who talk about it and who are very concerned about privacy issues and civil liberties issues, say that, you know, it may be it may be that forensic genealogy violates the spirit of the Fourth Amendment, but it’s not clear that it violates a letter of the Fourth Amendment. And so, you know, without it having ever been tested, it’s hard to say how strong an argument that would be.

MA

Well, I appreciate your input, Libby, because this is an issue that I’m going to have to deal with in my own practice. Very quickly.

LC

Oh, well, I hope I hope you have actual real lawyers to talk to and not just some journalist.

DM

Listen, thank you so much, Libby, we really appreciate your time today. And it’s a great, great read. And it had a tremendous impact on I think both of us.

LC

 Thank you so much. I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to talk to you. And you know, I think this topic is what we’re going to be talking about for a long time. So I’m so thrilled to be able to talk to you about it.

DM

 Will we be looking at a follow up down the road?

LC

 Oh, possibly. Maybe.

DM

 Yeah. I’ll be calling my mom again.

LC

 Yeah, right. Exactly.

MA

 Thank you, Libby. Really appreciate it.

DM

 What a great discussion Mehul. It really comes through that Libby is a journalism pro, and that she did a ton of homework for this book. I would really like to see her do a follow up.

MA

Yeah, no doubt Libby was great to talk to. And it’s my hope that our episode stokes interest in her book. I mean, with 30 million or more consumer genetic tests being completed. Let’s face it, almost all of us are going to be potentially affected by the results of these things. And we’re going to need to know how the heck deal with that.

DM

I’m going to do a shameless plug for our podcast, listeners take a look at a few of our past episodes that dealt with genealogy, ‘Golden State killer-A New Era of DNA Investigations’. and ‘When Genealogy Reveals Evil’, that’s the episode with Jeff Mudgett. When you talk about shocking family secrets, just imagine finding out that your great, great grandfather was America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes.

MA

Yeah, that’s a that’s a terrible Thanksgiving dinner topic of conversation.

DM

Unfortunately, with the addition of DNA testing to classic genealogy, more people are going to receive the shocking news that somewhere in their family, there’s a criminal.

MA

 Absolutely true. And there’s plenty of examples of that. So let me just give you one- Brandy Jennings from Vancouver. She uploads her DNA to GEDmatch, and her purpose of doing that is to learn more about her father and his relatives after he died. So she uploads her DNA doesn’t think about it. Sometime later, investigators start messaging her on Facebook, asking her if she knows someone by the name of Jerry Burns. Well, Mr. Burns happens to be a suspect in the 39 year old Iowa case of Michelle Martinko’s murder. So unbeknownst to Brandy, the police had uploaded crime scene DNA into GEDmatch, and boom, it showed an association with Brandy. And ultimately through the genealogical research, they found out that Brandy was a second cousin once removed of the killer. Now, Brandy Jennings was happy to talk to the media about this. She was happy that she could contribute to solving a crime. And she actually said that she was into true crime. And so just to give you a little background on how this case ended, the genealogy narrowed down the suspect pool to three brothers. So they took covert samples from two of them and eliminated them. For the third one, Mr. Burns the investigators followed Mr. Burns and his son into a pizza restaurant. Now, Dion, I gotta tell you, there’s a common thread here. It seems like they always nab the guy at a pizza restaurant. I mean, you take the Grim Sleeper, he was at a pizza restaurant, and what do they do? They take you know, DNA from half eaten pizza or a drink cup, or something like that. So I’m starting to wonder if pizza is really the main tool here and solving these cases.

DM

Well I think we’ve been going around profiling all wrong. I think we just need to start with serial killers who eat pizza.

MA

I think so. I think you start taking random samples from different pizza parlors.

DM

That’s a really a crazy coincidence, though.

MA

 Yeah, it is. So in another episode, Crumbs of Evidence, we talked to Jared Bradley of M-Vac systems and one of the things we discussed was the use of the  M-Vac in the Angie Dodge case. Now there’s a lot of twists and turns in that case that have to do with genealogy. We had false confession, leading to a wrongful conviction. We had the use of the M-Vac in a really cool way that led to an exoneration. And we had genetic genealogy that ultimately led to the real perpetrator. Now there was a bit of a stumble along the way. And Libby refers to this that some of the early testing in genealogy was based on the Y chromosome, which was not as specific as the current autosomal DNA. So in the Angie Dodge case, in 2014, the police decided that they wanted to use this early genetic genealogy. And when they did that, they actually got a hit to a man named Michael Usry. Now he was in Louisiana. Now check this out. He had visited Idaho once where the crime took place. And he was a filmmaker. And guess what one of his projects was, he made a film about a woman’s brutal murder called Murderabilia. So let me just stop there, right, we’ve got all the ingredients for confirmation bias. We have, quote, DNA, which we’re going to find out was actually weak in this case, but we have these other factors that can definitely lead to tunnel vision. Well, ultimately, they resolved that Mr. Usry was not a match using this early Y chromosome testing. Few years Later, technology is better, they want to have at it again, so now they do the autosomal DNA testing, boom, they get the true perpetrator, Brian Dripps, but I want to contrast this with the previous case I talked about with Brandy Jennings. Here. I was looking at a newspaper report, and they talk about the court affidavit. And they say that, you know, the laboratory developed the hypothesis that the unknown DNA donor was a male descendant of, and they name a person who is deceased. And his his wife’s name-and they give the name.. She’s also deceased. Here’s my question to you, Dion. Why in a newspaper article do you have to name the people that the killer descended from? What utility is there in that? I mean, I know it’s in the genealogical report. I know it’s in the court record, that probably should have been redacted. And even if it didn’t, why did the media feel the need to name those people in the article?

DM

 You know, I’ve been thinking about that. I think it’s kind of a guilt by association, even though they weren’t involved. They’re still looking for, you know, they’re still hunting for heads, so to speak, of people that they could pin it on, you know, can’t be just the one guy maybe the whole family. It’s it’s just the, you know, I just think they got swept up in the media rush to start you know, start to point fingers at people. What doyou think?

MA

Yeah, therein lies the problem. I mean, if I were to submit my DNA and it helps to solve crime, that’s great. But guess what? I don’t want anybody mentioning my name.

DM

No. And I think that goes to Libby’s comments that she mentioned that the consumer DNA testing is actually on the decline. And the two reasons that have been cited are saturation of the market, which is no shock there. But I think more importantly, privacy concerns.

MA

 Yeah. So one of the early illustrations of the privacy concerns that Libby discussed in her book was the Arizona State University study

DM

 That one was actually just kind of disturbing to read, because I really felt for them because it it rocked the core of who they are.

MA

 Well, it was disturbing. And it was several years ago. So we’ve got that ironed out by now. Right? So this study that she talked about, you know, just to go back to Havasupai Indians, they were interested in studying diabetes. So they looked at the genetic component. Well, they started studying other stuff as Libby described. So I think it’s not worth mentioning the so-called GEDmatch opt in controversy from last year because it’s somewhat of a parallel to the ASU study. So, after the Golden State killer, of course, genetic genealogy was all the rage. And there was a case in Utah where an A 71-year-old lady was practicing organ inside a locked church. Some young man broke a window, leaving some blood at the crime scene came in and for whatever reason, started choking this poor older lady. He didn’t kill her. But she was obviously injured. And then there was DNA evidence, the blood from the broken window. Well, police, you know, they ran out of leads, and they wanted to use genetic genealogy, specifically the GEDmatch database. Well, there was a problem in the terms and conditions for GEDmatch. It specifically says that we’re only going to use this for the crimes of rape and murder. And while this assault of the 71-year-old lady is horrible, it’s just that it’s an aggravated assault. So apparently, the police sweet talked GEDmatch into being able to use their database. Lo and behold, they solve the case. Well, happy ending, right? You know, what’s the issue here? Well, there was violation of informed consent. So in the terms and conditions for GEDmatch, which by the way was only seven pages, it’s not one of these, you know, things you got to click through for three hours, just to to read all of it. It’s specifically said, listen, you cannot use this in an aggravated assault case. And that’s what people signed up for and agreed to. So the issue here is that if firms are gonna start changing the rules on us, then what do these terms and conditions really mean? And I think people then are going to get skeptical of sharing their genetic information, and what’s going to happen like you refer to, the databases are going to shrink, and we’re actually going to have less power to solve crimes using this type of technology. So GEDmatch came up with the famous opt in which means that by default, all users would be opted out of being eligible for law enforcement searches. And they would have to specifically opt in if they wanted to be included in that type of search. So naturally now the number of profiles that are searchable, went down. And now you see this campaign on Twitter, you know, hashtag opt in, help solve a case, all of that kind of stuff. Right? Those numbers, of course, are gradually going up. But that was a setback in genetic genealogy.

DM

 Well, not only do the terms and conditions, I believe they just don’t mean anything on any site anymore. I mean, look at how many you know, big hacks we’ve had with Facebook or not a hack but finding out on the back end that they’ve been selling the information and now you’ve gotta take into consideration the, the shrinking of the market and the condensing of people buying other companies are those terms and conditions gonna follow the user on to the next company and I don’t believe they will.

MA

 Well it’s interesting you bring that up as a matter of fact, in 2019 GEDmatch was sold to Verogen, which is a genomics company. Now I read I pulled the terms and conditions, it’s still seven pages. It’s still straightforward. You just drop Verogen in there and a couple places, but who knows what the future holds? Okay, that’s all pretty heavy.

DM

 Yeah, you were really dropping your, your DNA nerd on me in those last couple of ones

MA

 I know. Okay, so let’s lighten it up a little bit here. Okay, so in the book, Libby talks about CeCe Moore she’s sort of now the face of investigative genetic genealogy. And you told me and I want you to share this with our listeners about a unexpected connection that you had with CeCe in terms of crossing paths with her back in the day?

DM

 Yeah, this is crazy. So I’m seeing her name repeatedly. And I just thought that because at some point time we were developing a show we wanted to bring her in as a consultant. And then I kept looking in the name and then in Libby’s book, she, she’s actually interviewing her and talking about how she got into, you know, her current field, and she mentioned that she was a kind of a struggling model and actress in Los Angeles and then it hit me. And so I looked I went to look them up online. And sure enough, we have a history going back to working on a couple of productions back in the day for Stu Segall down in San Diego. How about a small world?

MA

Are you saying that you were also a struggling actress?

DM

 Struggling actor.

MA

Yeah. Wow. I mean, What a small world. It’s funny how that ultimately you both ended up working in crime one way or another.

DM

 I think it’s fair to say that Mehul and I got a lot out of Libby’s book, and we encourage our listeners to get a copy. Visit libbycopeland.com to purchase the book and learn more about Libby. You can also follow her on Twitter @libbycopeland. Thanks to all of our listeners and social media followers. It’s exciting to see our download numbers increase. Please catch up on all of our past episodes at crime redefined.libsyn.com and please follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and on Instagram, and stay safe out there.

B

 Thank you for listening to the Crime Redefined podcast, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @crimeredefined. Please send us your comments and questions and join us for the next episode.

 

 

One comment

  1. Barbara McNeill says:

    Excellent program. I want to read the book soon.
    Also am keeping with my decision not to submit any samples.
    Some family members are into genealogy, but have not gone the route of DNA testing.

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