Investigative genetic genealogy FAQs
From ISOGG Wiki
These frequently asked questions (FAQs) on investigative genetic genealogy (IGG) provide information on domain vocabulary and definition; what is done, by whom, and how; and links to selected policies. The FAQs are a work in progress. Comments, corrections and further questions are welcome.
- 1 General
- 1.1 What is investigative genetic genealogy?
- 1.2 What is forensic genealogy and how is it different from investigative genetic genealogy?
- 1.3 Which genetic genealogy databases are used?
- 1.4 Can law enforcement agencies access the databases of 23andMe, AncestryDNA, GEDMATCH, FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage DNA, Living DNA and other DNA databases?
- 1.5 How can we find out if a company has received a request for access to personal information from law enforcement?
- 1.6 How does law enforcement matching work at GEDmatch
- 1.7 How does law enforcement matching work at FamilyTreeDNA?
- 1.8 Do the police have access to my DNA?
- 1.9 Which countries are using investigative genetic genealogy?
- 1.10 I want to share my DNA for law enforcement purposes. What should I do?
- 1.11 I do not live in the US. Will US law enforcement agencies have access to my DNA profile?
- 1.12 I have not taken a DNA test? Could I be involved in an investigation?
- 1.13 What are vendor policies concerning investigative genetic genealogy?
- 2 Technical details
- 2.1 Which companies and organisations offer investigative genetic genealogy services?
- 2.2 What type of testing is done?
- 2.3 Which companies offer microarray testing for investigative genetic genealogy?
- 2.4 Which companies offer sequencing for investigative genetic genealogy?
- 2.5 What sources of DNA are used?
- 2.6 Are there any peer-reviewed publications about the extraction of nuclear DNA from hair?
- 3 Is it possible to extract DNA for genetic genealogy use from mixtures?
- 3.1 Are there any peer-reviewed publications on the methods used to extract a SNP set from whole genome sequencing data for upload to genetic genealogy databases?
- 3.2 Which microarray chips are used?
- 3.3 Are there any peer-reviewed papers investigating the use of microarrays on compromised DNA for investigative genetic genealogy?
- 3.4 How much DNA is required to generate a profile?
- 4 Qualifications
- 5 Legal issues
- 6 Regulation
- 6.1 Is investigative genetic genealogy regulated?
- 6.2 Are there any guidelines on how and when investigative genetic genealogy should be used?
- 6.3 Have genetic genealogy methods been validated for forensic use?
- 6.4 Are IGG methods relevant to a court trial of a criminal?
- 6.5 Have genetic genealogy methods been tested in court?
- 6.6 Have any cases gone to trial where genetic genealogy was used to generate an investigative lead?
- 6.7 I have a complaint about the actions of a US law enforcement agency. Who should I write to?
- 6.8 Who provides oversight of the FBI?
- 6.9 Who is responsible for accrediting forensic service providers in the US?
- 7 Ethics
- 7.1 Are there are any organisations which provide guidance on ethical issues relating to forensic genetics?
- 7.2 Can genetic genealogy be used to identify the mothers of baby does?
- 7.3 I am morally opposed to the death penalty. Can I restrict law enforcement access to my data to jurisdictions which do not use the death penalty?
- 7.4 Which countries use the death penalty?
- 7.5 Which US states still apply the death penalty and for what crimes?
- 8 Surveys
- 9 Forensic DNA databases
- 9.1 When does law enforcement turn to IGG to solve crimes?
- 9.2 Do all prisoners in the US have their DNA in the national DNA database?
- 9.3 Are sexual assault kits in the US tested as a matter of routine?
- 9.4 Do law enforcement agencies in the US have the ability to test the DNA of all convicted offenders?
- 9.5 Do law enforcement agencies in the US have the ability take the DNA of all arrestees?
- 9.6 What is familial searching? How is it different from investigative genetic genealogy?
- 9.7 Which US states use familial searching?
- 10 Statistics
- 11 Is there a comprehensive list of links regarding cases solved through investigative genetic genealogy?
- 12 Further reading
- 13 Resources
- 14 See also
- 15 References
What is investigative genetic genealogy?
Investigative genetic genealogy (sometimes also known as forensic genetic genealogy) is the science of using genetic and genealogical methods to generate leads for law enforcement entities investigating crimes and identifying human remains. Genetic genealogists use DNA profiles from a crime scene or from unidentified human remains to identify close genetic DNA profiles or matches. By comparing the known genealogy of those close familial matches, this constrains the number of possible close relatives of the perpetrator or victim. Such efforts enable investigators or researchers to more closely focus their investigation in cold or stale criminal cases providing new leads.
This investigative or forensic genetic genealogy technique came to public attention after the arrest of the the so called "Golden State Killer" in April 2018. By October 2019 more than 60 cold cases had been solved in this manner.
What is forensic genealogy and how is it different from investigative genetic genealogy?
Forensic genealogy is a term used particularly in the US to describe the application of genealogical methods in cases which have legal implications, eg heir hunting, establishing citizenship, etc. IGG is a subset of forensic genealogy and not a synonym.:337
Which genetic genealogy databases are used?
The two databases which are known have been used to date for IGG are: GEDmatch and Family Tree DNA. A third database DNA Solves, which is reserved solely for law enforcement cases, was launched in December 2019 by Othram, a forensic genome sequencing company.
Can law enforcement agencies access the databases of 23andMe, AncestryDNA, GEDMATCH, FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage DNA, Living DNA and other DNA databases?
The short answer is yes, but only with a proper, legal and lawful search warrant signed by a judge. In the United States, search warrants can be challenged or limited in focus by a legal appeal process. As of January 2020 the following genetic genealogy companies provide information in their terms of service or privacy notices regarding possible law enforcement access. Bold print added below for emphasis.
Access to your information
" We will not provide information to law enforcement or regulatory authorities unless required by law to comply with a valid court order, subpoena, or search warrant for genetic or Personal Information."
Section E. As required by law "Under certain circumstances your Personal Information may be subject to processing pursuant to laws, regulations, judicial or other government subpoenas, warrants, or orders. For example, we may be required to disclose Personal Information in coordination with regulatory authorities in response to lawful requests by public authorities, including to meet national security or law enforcement requirements. 23andMe will preserve and disclose any and all information to law enforcement agencies or others if required to do so by law or in the good faith belief that such preservation or disclosure is reasonably necessary to: (a) comply with legal or regulatory process (such as a judicial proceeding, court order, or government inquiry) or obligations that 23andMe may owe pursuant to ethical and other professional rules, laws, and regulations; (b) enforce the 23andMe Terms of Service and other policies; (c) respond to claims that any content violates the rights of third parties; or (d) protect the rights, property, or personal safety of 23andMe, its employees, its users, its clients, and the public."
23andMe have further clarified in a blog post that they "would use every legal remedy possible" to challenge a request for access.
23andMe also caution their customers about the risks of uploading raw data to third-party services.
Ancestry does not voluntarily cooperate with law enforcement. To provide our Users with the greatest protection under the law, we require all government agencies follow valid legal process.
If we are compelled to disclose your Personal Information to law enforcement, we will do our best to provide you with advance notice, unless we are prohibited under the law from doing so. In the interest of transparency, Ancestry produces a Transparency Report where we list the number of valid law enforcement requests for user data across all our sites.
Other Legal or Regulatory Process
We may share your Personal Information if we believe it is reasonably necessary to:
Comply with valid legal process (e.g., subpoenas, warrants); ...
They further stated in a blog post that they will "always advocate for our customers’ privacy and seek to narrow the scope of any compelled disclosure, or even eliminate it entirely".
FamilyTree DNA reports in their Terms of Service, in section 6b;
You agree to not use the Services for any forensic examinations, criminal investigations, and/or similar purposes (“Law Enforcement Purposes”) without a jurisdictionally valid subpoena, issued in connection with an official criminal investigation, a court order, or a search warrant properly issued under the procedures described in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure or equivalent state warrant procedures, based on a showing of probable cause (“Legal Process Documentation”), or written permission from FamilyTreeDNA following a request that meets our requirements to register as a law enforcement user;
You agree to not use the Services for any law enforcement purposes, forensic examinations, criminal investigations, and/or similar purposes without the required legal documentation and written permission from FamilyTreeDNA;
In section C: FamilyTreeDNA User Conduct - Unlawful and Prohibited Use of the Services:
As a requirement of your use of the Services, you guarantee to FamilyTreeDNA that you will not use the Services for any function that is unlawful or prohibited by these terms. Using the Services for law enforcement purposes without the authorized permission of FamilyTreeDNA or pursuant to valid Legal Process Documentation, further explained in our Law Enforcement Guidelines, is strictly prohibited. Users wanting to create an account for law enforcement purposes are required to register all DNA samples and genetic files in advance of processing and use of the Service. Use of the Service for law enforcement purposes is a privilege, not a right. FamilyTreeDNA will track all files uploaded by registered law enforcement user accounts to ensure they are properly identified as such. FamilyTreeDNA reserves the right to revoke law enforcement’s account access for any reason without warning, including any use of the account for any law enforcement purpose not expressly agreed to by FamilyTreeDNA.
GEDMATCH is not a DNA testing company, but provides data analysis from raw data uploaded by its user members. It is helpful in Its autosomal DNA (atDNA) search matching allowing members to compare member-uploaded raw data that was tested at different DNA testing companies. Their Terms of Service state;
Raw DNA Data Provided to GEDmatch
When you upload Raw Data to GEDmatch, you agree that the Raw Data is one of the following:
DNA of a person for whom you are a legal guardian;
DNA of a person who has granted you specific authorization to upload their DNA to GEDmatch;
DNA of a person known by you to be deceased;
DNA obtained and authorized by law enforcement to identify a perpetrator of a violent crime against another individual, where 'violent crime' is defined as murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, aggravated rape, robbery, or aggravated assault ;
DNA obtained and authorized by law enforcement to identify remains of a deceased individual;
An artificial DNA kit (if and only if: (1) it is intended for research purposes; and (2) it is not used to identify anyone in the GEDmatch database); or DNA obtained from an artifact (if and only if: (1) you have a reasonable belief that the Raw Data is DNA from a previous owner or user of the artifact rather than from a living individual; and (2) that previous owner or user of the artifact is known to you to be deceased).
By registering for GEDmatch and using the Site, you agree that you will not upload Raw Data that does not satisfy one of these categories. If you have previously uploaded Raw Data that does not satisfy one of these categories, you hereby agree that you will remove it immediately.
GEDmatch will not be responsible for any Raw Data provided to GEDmatch in violation of this Policy. Violators of this Policy will have their Raw Data or other personal information deleted without warning, their access will be blocked, and/or other remedial steps may be taken, including any legal action allowed under law.
Living DNA state in their privacy statement that;
3. The Legal Process
There are circumstances in which we may be legally required to disclose information. Examples of this include where we are subject to a binding court order, subpoena, or a legally binding direction by a regulator, and where we are required to share information with HM Revenue and Customs. We reserve the right to share personal information where we reasonably believe that we are legally required to do so. We will not share your personal information with law enforcement agencies unless we believe that we are legally compelled to do so. We may also share information where this is necessary for us to exercise or enforce our rights under our Terms or otherwise at law, or where we reasonably and in good faith consider it necessary or appropriate to do so in order to protect the security of our site, customers or employees.:
3. Where necessary to comply with a legal obligation. We have shortened this to 'comply with law'.
Will MyHeritage Disclose any of Your Personal Information to Third Parties?
We will not provide information to law enforcement unless required by a valid court order or subpoena for genetic personal information.
We may share your personal information only in very limited circumstances:
When legally required
How can we find out if a company has received a request for access to personal information from law enforcement?
Some of the companies publish transparency reports which list requests for data access received from law enforcement.
Transparency reports are currently published by 23andMe, AncestryDNA and FamilyTree DNA:
- Ancestry has reports available for 2015 to 2018. All the law enforcement requests were related to credit card misuse and identity theft. See: https://www.ancestry.co.uk/cs/transparency
- 23andMe’s transparency report was last updated in October 2019. To date they have received seven requests for user data, all of which are from the US. See: https://www.23andme.com/en-gb/transparency-report/
- FamilyTreeDNA first published a transparency report on 1 May 2018. The report is no longer available online but is archived
here. An updated transparency report was published on 1 January 2021.
How does law enforcement matching work at GEDmatch
Law enforcement can upload DNA profiles to GEDmatch in compliance with the terms and conditions outlined in the site policy.
How does law enforcement matching work at FamilyTreeDNA?
Do the police have access to my DNA?
They don't. And they never will. Or at least not to your raw DNA data. What they see is your user name, your e-mail address and the amount of DNA you share with your match. They can use a chromosome browser to view the location of the shared segments of DNA. You never see anyone's raw DNA data (unless they specifically give you access to it) and neither do the police.
Which countries are using investigative genetic genealogy?
As of February 2020 the method has been mostly used by law enforcement agencies in the US. The police in Vancouver, Canada, announced in May 2019 that they were using genetic genealogy and had hired the services of Parabon. The police in Edmonton, Alberta, announced in February 2020 that they would be starting to use genetic genealogy.
Pilot studies are under way in some other countries (the Netherlands, Sweden and Australia). The Swedish Police Authority has published a detailed report on its pilot stu dy. The report Forensic DNA traces and genealogy can be downloaded in English and Swedish from the Swedish Police Authority's website. On the publications page scroll about two thirds of the way down the page to locate the link.
FamilyTreeDNA currently restricts the use of their database to law enforcement agencies in the US but the database has been used for two pilot studies in Sweden. The GEDmatch database could potentially be used by law enforcement agencies worldwide.
- For a US perspective see the page on the DNA Project website For families of the missing
- For an Australian perspective see the article from Louise Coakley How your DNA can help identify human remains and solve cold cases
I do not live in the US. Will US law enforcement agencies have access to my DNA profile?
The police will only have access to your profile at GEDmatch or at FTDNA if you are opted in to law enforcement matching. At GEDmatch all users were automatically opted out with effect from May 2019 and had to opt in to law enforcement matching. Following the sale of GEDmatch to Verogen in December 2019, all EU customers were again required to re-consent to their use of the database under the new owners. FTDNA customers are automatically opted in to law enforcement matching. Users in the European Union were retrospectively opted out in March 2019, but new EU users are automatically opted in. However customers retain the right to change these automatic options at any time.
I have not taken a DNA test? Could I be involved in an investigation?
Yes. Your genealogical data or other public information could be used as part of the investigation if you have a relative in the GEDmatch or FTDNA database. You might be contacted by the police for information about your family tree or you might be approached for target testing to narrow down the search pool. For practical purposes you are not likely to be affected unless you have a cousin in the database who is a close match (eg fourth cousin or closer) with the DNA from the crime scene or with the DNA of the unidentified human remains.
What are vendor policies concerning investigative genetic genealogy?
The FamilyTreeDNA Law Enforcement Guide restricts the use of the database in the US to the following cases:
- To identify the remains of a deceased individual
- To identify a perpetrator of homicide, sexual assault, or abduction
The GEDmatch Site Policy only allows uploads of DNA profiles for the following purposes:
- DNA obtained and authorized by law enforcement to identify a perpetrator of a violent crime against another individual, where 'violent crime' is defined as murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, aggravated rape, robbery, or aggravated assault
- DNA obtained and authorized by law enforcement to identify remains of a deceased individual
Which companies and organisations offer investigative genetic genealogy services?
N.B. Inclusion on the list below does not imply endorsement by ISOGG. Law enforcement agencies are advised to make their own checks before investing in an IGG service.
The following companies are known to be offering investigative genetic genealogy services:
- Bode Technology The investigative genetic genealogy service is led by Melinde Lutz Byrne.
- AdvanceDNA The genetic genealogists on the team are Cheryl Hester and Amanda Reno.
- DNA Cold Cases A company founded by Joel Chambers and Dwight Brooks.
- DNA Doe Project A not-for-profit organisation which specialises in the use of whole genome sequencing to identify John and Jane Does.
- DNA Labs International The Chief Operating Officer is Allison Nunes.
- Coast to Coast Genetic Genealogy Services A company set up by Cairenn Binder, Tracie Boyle and Harmony Vollmer.
- Gene by Gene has an investigative genetic genealogy unit led by Barbara Rae-Venter
- Innovative Forensic A company founded by Jennifer Moore focusing on team collaboration.
- Kin Finder Group A company founded by Myles B Caggins. Angela Trammel is a co-researcher.
- Kin Forensics A company set up by Deb Stone.
- Othram A company specialising in human identification that performs all laboratory testing and genealogy research in-house.
- Parabon Nanolabs A company specialising in “next generation therapeutics and forensics”. Parabon’s Snapshot Genetic Genealogy service is led by CeCe Moore.
- Private Investigations Genetic Genealogy A service led by licensed private investigator Stephanie Wyatt.
- Redgrave Research A team which includes Anthony Lukas Redgrave, the co-founder of the Trans Doe Task Force.
- Saber Investigations. The principal investigator is Kevin Lord.
- Trans Doe Task Force A group which researches cold cases in which the subject may have been transgender or gender-variant
- Truth by Genetics
- United Data Connect Founded by Mitch Morrissey. The company offers both familial searching and investigative genealogy services.
In addition, the FBI has its own investigative genetic genealogy unit in California. Some US law enforcement agencies have also established their own IGG units. Florida was the first state to have its own forensic genealogy unit. It is headed up by Lori Napolitano. See: https://thecrimelady.substack.com/p/the-crime-lady-the-forensic-scientist.
What type of testing is done?
There are many different methods used which rely of measuring lots of markers across the genome. These markers are used to build a SNP profile for upload to one of the genetic genealogy databases that allows law enforcement searches. Microarray testing can be successfully used if there is a high-quality single source profile but sequencing is generally preferred for forensic use and particularly when working with degraded DNA
Which companies offer microarray testing for investigative genetic genealogy?
N.B. Inclusion on the list below does not imply endorsement by ISOGG.
- Bode Technology (using external labs)
- DNA Labs International (using external labs)
- DNA Solutions
- Gene By Gene (the parent company of FamilyTreeDNA)
- Parabon Nanolabs (using external labs}
Which companies offer sequencing for investigative genetic genealogy?
N.B. Inclusion on the list below does not imply endorsement by ISOGG.
- Astrea Forensics A company specialising in extracting DNA from rootless hair. See the advertorial in ISHI News Solve cold Cases with DNA from rootless hair using genetic genealogy
- Bode Technology (using external labs)
- Full Genomes Corporation (using external labs)
- HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology
- Othram (using their in-house lab)
What sources of DNA are used?
Testing of DNA found at a crime scene is likely to be most successful for IGG if single source DNA is available in sufficient quantities from semen, blood or saliva.
For the identification of human remains the petrous bone in the inner ear yields the highest quantities of exogenous DNA.
In some cases it has been possible to extract nuclear DNA from rootless hair.
Are there any peer-reviewed publications about the extraction of nuclear DNA from hair?
The following articles have been published in the scientific literature:
- Loreille O, Tillmar A, Brandhagen MD, Otterstatter L, Irwin JA. Improved DNA extraction and Illumina sequencing of DNA recovered from aged rootless hair shafts found in relics associated with the Romanov family. Genes 2022 13(2) 202.
- Grisedale KS, Murphy GM, Brown H et al (2018). Successful nuclear DNA profiling of rootless hair shafts: a novel approach. International Journal of Legal Medicine 132: 107.
- Brandhagen MD, Loreille O, Irwin JA (2018). Fragmented nuclear DNA Is the predominant genetic material in human hair shafts. Genes 9(12), 640.
Dr Ed Green at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has co-operated with several law enforcement agencies on a number of investigations. However, his methods have not yet been subjected to peer review. Bode Technology also claim to be able to extract DNA from rootless hair.
Is it possible to extract DNA for genetic genealogy use from mixtures?
Two person mixtures can sometimes be analysed. Success will depend on the relative amounts of DNA from the major and minor contributors. A single-source DNA sample from the minor contributor is often needed to separate the two profiles. In rare cases three-person mixtures can be analysed if there are only trace contributions from the minor contributors. See: https://snapshot.parabon-nanolabs.com/faq
The US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has published a draft report on "DNA Mixture Interpretation: A Scientific Foundation Review".
Are there any peer-reviewed publications on the methods used to extract a SNP set from whole genome sequencing data for upload to genetic genealogy databases?
Yes. Two papers have been published by Swedish scientists:
- Andreas Tillmar, Peter Sjölund, Bo Lundqvist et al. Whole-genome sequencing of human remains to enable genealogy DNA database searches – A case report. Forensic Science International Genetics 2020; 46: 102233.
- Andreas Tillmar, Siri Aili Fagerholm, Jan Staaf, Peter Sjölund and Ricky Ansell. Getting the conclusive lead with investigative genetic genealogy – A successful case study of a 16 year old double murder in Sweden. Forensic Science International Genetics 2021; 53: 102525.
Which microarray chips are used?
Are there any peer-reviewed papers investigating the use of microarrays on compromised DNA for investigative genetic genealogy?
No. However, de Vries et al have published a preprint (June 2021) Impact of SNP microarray analysis of compromised DNA on kinship classification success in the context of investigative genetic genealogy.
How much DNA is required to generate a profile?
The minimum quantity of DNA required will vary depending on a number of factors including:
- Quantity of DNA
- Quality of DNA
- Source of DNA
- Contamination from non-human sources like bacteria
It also depends on the testing technology. Microarrays perform badly at low quantity and low quality and will fail on samples with more than 50% contamination. CODIS markers (autosomal STRs) work fine on contaminated DNA but also require fairly decent quality. Sequencing works well even if the DNA is so degraded that the fragments are as small as 40-50 bases.
In general terms, DNA profiles can be generated with >20 ng of DNA. In some situations the labs can work with quantities as low as 1 ng. Sequencing can also sometimes work with quantities as low as 150 pg of DNA. A John Doe from Snohomish County in Washington State was identified from a DNA sample of less than 200 pg extracted from a tooth.
Are there any organisations which accredit genealogists?
There are a number of organisations around the world which provide accreditation for genealogists. These include:
- Accredited Genealogists Ireland
- Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (England and Wales)
- Australian Association of Genealogists and Record Agents
- Association of Scottish Genealogists and Researchers in Archives
- Board for Certification of Genealogists (US)
- International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (US)
New legislation in the US state of Maryland requires that all genealogists working on forensic cases should be licensed by 1st October 2024 though no details are as yet available as to how this licensing process will work. For further details see the blog post from Dick Eastman Maryland Now Requires Licensing of any Forensic Genealogist Who Works With Police.
Is accreditation a guarantee of quality?
There is no organisation which provides accreditation in genetic genealogy and accreditation from one of the above genealogical organisations is no guarantee that the practitioner has the relevant knowledge and expertise in genetic genealogy. There are many excellent genealogists who are not accredited with any of these organisations, including many of the leading practitioners of investigative genetic genealogy.
For a detailed overview of genealogical credentials see Credentials for Genealogists: Proof of the Professional (2nd edn) by Paul Gorry (Blessington Books, 2021). Available from Amazon.
Are there any best practice guidelines relating to genetic genealogy?
An ad hoc group of genetic genealogists compiled a set of Genetic Genealogy Standards in 2015. For background on the creation of the standards see the article by Debbie Parker Wayne Genetic genealogy journey: genetic genealogy standards (National Genealogical Society Magazine April-June 2015 41: 59-61). See also the blog post by Blaine Bettinger Announcing the genetic genealogy standards. The Genetic Genealogist, 10 January 2015.
The US-based Board for the Certification of Genealogists has published a book of Genealogy Standards (2nd edition, 2019) which includes standards on the interpretation of DNA results for genetic genealogy. For a discussion of the DNA-related standards see the series of eight blog posts on DNA standards written by Debbie Parker Wayne.
There are no published genealogy standards for best practices in investigative genetic genealogy. The companies and law enforcement agencies who perform the genealogy searches may have developed their own internal guidelines.
What is the Fourth Amendment? Does it protect me?
The Fourth Amendment is a clause in the US Constitution which establishes the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” by the government. It protects all US citizens and others within the jurisdiction of the United States.
The following legal scholars have written opinion pieces on investigative genetic genealogy in general and the implications of the Fourth Amendment (note that essays in legal journals do not undergo peer review):
- Claire Abrahamson. Guilt by genetic association: the Fourth Amendment and the search of private genetic databases by law enforcement. Fordham Law Review 2019 87(6): 2539. The author concludes that in the absence of any regulatory or legislative oversight, “there are strong legal grounds to object to warrantless law enforcement searches of private genetic databases”.
- George M. Dery III. Can a distant relative allow the government access to your DNA? The Fourth Amendment implications of law enforcement’s genealogical search for the Golden State Killer and other genetic genealogy investigations, Hastings Science and Technology Law Journal 2019:10:103. The author reviews prior court decisions on related privacy issues and concludes “The Court’s decision about the Fourth Amendment reasonableness of warrantless government collection of genetic information from genealogy sites will thus turn on how it chooses to frame the question triggered by this new technology”.
- Joseph Zabel. The killer inside us: law, ethics, and the forensic use of family genetics. Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law (Forthcoming, Fall 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3368705 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3368705/ The author discusses the benefits and harms relating to the use of genetic genealogy databases by law enforcement and suggests that courts should perform a balancing test if the technology is the subject of a legal challenge.
- Hillary L Cody. Standing to challenge familial searches of commercial DNA databases William and Mary Law Review Vol. 61 (2019-2020) Iss. 1 (2019).
- Antony B. Kolenc. "23 and Plea": Limiting Police Use of Genealogy Sites After Carpenter v. United States, 122 W. Va. L. Rev. (2019). Available at: https://researchrepository.wvu.edu/wvlr/vol122/iss1/5
- Jamie M Zeevi. "DNA Is different: an exploration of the current inadequacies of genetic privacy protection in recreational DNA databases." St John's Law Review 2019, Volume 93, Number 3, Article 10. Available from: https://scholarship.law.stjohns.edu/lawreview/vol93/iss3/10/
- Teneille R Brown. Why we fear genetic informants. Science and Technology Law Review 2020; 21(1).
- Michael I Selvin. A too permeating police surveillance: consumer genetic genealogy and the Fourth Amendment after Carpenter, 53 Loyola Law Review Los Angeles 1015 (2020).
- Natalie Ram. Investigative genetic genealogy and the future of genetic privacy. Scitech Lawyer Chicago Vol. 16, Iss. 4, (Summer 2020): 18-22.
- Christopher Slobogin and James Hazel. 'A world of difference?': law enforcement, genetic data and the Fourth Amendment (April 25, 2020). Duke Law Journal, Vol. 70, 2020, Vanderbilt Law Research Paper No. 20-23, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3585241 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3585241. There is a summary of the research here: this Crime Report article.
- Ciera Gonzalez. "Genetic privacy: late to the third party," Colorado Technology Law Journal 18, no. 2 (2020): 423-452. Available from Hein Online: https://heinonline.org
- Charles D Stimson. The Fourth Amendment does not require law enforcement officials to get a warrant to search third-party consumer genetics websites. Legal Memorandum No. 273, October 29, 2020, Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.
- Hannah Parman. Comment: the thickness of blood: Article I, Section 7, Law enforcement and commercial DNA databases, 95 Washington Law Review 2057 (2020). Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.uw.edu/wlr/vol95/iss4/10
- Solana Lund. Ethical implications of forensic genealogy in criminal cases 13 The Journal of Business Entrepreneurship and the Law 13(2) 185-207 (2020).
- Craig M Klugman and Hector F Rodriguez. Ethics of familial genetic genealogy: solving crimes at the cost of privacy, 22 DePaul Journal of Health Care Law (2021). Available at: https://via.library.depaul.edu/jhcl/vol22/iss2
- Victoria Romine. Crime, DNA, and family: protecting genetic privacy in the world of 23andMe. 53 Arizona State Law Journal 367 (2021).
- Genevieve Carter. The genetic panopticon: genetic genealogy searches and the fourth amendment. Northwestern Law Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property 311 (2021).
- Jasper Ford-Monroe. Why familial searches of civilian DNA databases can and should survive Carpenter. Hastings Law Journal 2021; 72(6), article 5.
- Alexis B Hill. I just took a DNA Test, turns out my relative’s a murder suspect: restoring Fourth Amendment balance to direct-to-consumer DNA testing companies. George Washington Law Review 2021; 89: 1046.
What is third party doctrine?
The third-party doctrine is a US legal doctrine which holds that voluntarily sharing information with a third party such as a genetic genealogy company means that the individual has “no reasonable expectation of privacy”. Such sharing renders the information beyond the protections of the Fourth Amendment. For further details see the article by Steven J Arango for the American Bar Association The third-party doctrine in the wake of a “seismic shift".
What is Carpenter versus the United States?
Carpenter v. United States was a landmark court case in the US which was decided by the Supreme Court in 2018 and which challenged the third party doctrine. The case related to a Fourth Amendment challenge to electronic database access under the personal control (such as by password or under contract) of a person. Carpenter challenged that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when law enforcement accessed his personal, password-protected, cell phone database without a legal warrant. The USSC ruled that the access of GPS location information and tower ping codes which conflicted with Carpenter's defense and which led to his conviction was improper without a proper warrant.
For information on the possible implications of Carpenter v. United States for investigative genetic genealogy see: Ram, Natalie, Genetic privacy after Carpenter. Virginia Law Review 2019; 105. Forthcoming). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3265827 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3265827/
What is GDPR? Does it protect me?
GDPR is the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. It gives EU residents the right to control how their data is used. Data must be processed fairly for specified purposes and on the basis of the consent of the person concerned or some other legitimate basis laid down by law. GDPR applies to all companies and organisations which have customers or members in an EU country. Individuals have the right to complain to the privacy regulator in the country in which they reside if they believe that their data has been used inappropriately. It is not known if an EU resident has complained to a regulator about the use of their data in a genetic genealogy database without their consent by US law enforcement agencies.
Is investigative genetic genealogy regulated?
There is currently no legal or regulatory oversight of investigative genetic genealogy in the US or elsewhere.
Are there any guidelines on how and when investigative genetic genealogy should be used?
The US Department of Justice issued an Interim Policy on Forensic Genetic Genealogical DNA Analysis and Searching in September 2019 which will take effect from 1st November 2019. A final department policy on forensic genetic genealogy will be issued in 2020. See here for the press release. In an editorial in Science, Thomas Callaghan, the FBI's Chief Biometric Scientist, encouraged members of the public to provide feedback to the FBI on the Interim Policy.
SWGDAM (the Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods), which reports to the FBI Director, convened a Committee of Correspondence to advise it on the subject. They held a technical session on investigative genealogy at their meeting in July 2019 (the session was postponed from January 2019 because of the federal government shutdown). The committee was tasked with preparing a position statement on investigative genetic genealogy and recommending what future work, if any, SWGDAM should undertake on the subject. (See p4 of this document: https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/4344b0_606537256f2342fabe90b3dfdc692e39.pdf.) The resulting document Overview of investigative genetic genealogy was published by SWGDAM on 18th February 2020.
The Sacramento County District Attorney's Office in California has a Memorandum of Understanding for Investigative Genetic Genealogy Searching.
A meeting of US stakeholders was held at the Banbury Center at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York in October 2019 to discuss "Emerging Issues of Privacy, Trust, and Societal Benefit from Consumer Genomics". The meeting agenda can be found here. The Banbury Center have advised; "In terms of post-meeting outputs, the immediate communication about the meeting (the meeting agenda) will be on our website (https://www.cshl.edu/banbury/meeting-agendas), and we’ll tweet (https://twitter.com/cshlbanbury) when it has been posted. Depending on the meeting discussions, and what the group agrees is the best forum for outputs, we’ll either post a summary report on our website (~30 days after the meeting), or if the group decides to write something more formal, it could be longer to allow for the writing/submission process."
The UK's Biometrics and Forensics Ethics Group published a report in September 2020 entitled Use of genetic genealogy techniques to assist with solving crimes which looked at the feasibility of using genetic genealogy methods for the identification of suspects in criminal cases in the UK.
Have genetic genealogy methods been validated for forensic use?
So far just one study has been published in the UK which has validated the methods. See:
- Thomson J et al. An empirical investigation into the effectiveness of genetic genealogy to identify individuals in the United Kingdom. Forensic Science International Genetics 2020, Volume 46 (May): 102263, published online 24 February 2020.
Are IGG methods relevant to a court trial of a criminal?
Thus far, IGG methods have not been relevant in an actual trial. DNA brought into court is obtained directly from the crime scene and the accused defendant. Genealogy investigations are important in identifying investigative leads, but are not evidence about the crime per se.
Have genetic genealogy methods been tested in court?
Both genetic and genealogy methods have been tested in court but the specific alignment of the two methodologies to generate investigative leads has not been tested in court.
Have any cases gone to trial where genetic genealogy was used to generate an investigative lead?
Yes. Genetic genealogy was used to identify William Earl Talbott as a suspect in the murder of a Canadian couple, Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook, who were murdered in Washington State in the USA. The genetic genealogy methods were not tested in court. Both the prosecution and the defence accepted that genetic genealogy only provides a tip and that it wasn’t relevant to the court proceedings.
For further information on the Talbott case see the following links:
I have a complaint about the actions of a US law enforcement agency. Who should I write to?
Who provides oversight of the FBI?
According to the FBI website: "The FBI's activities are closely and regularly scrutinized by a variety of entities. Congress—through several oversight committees in the Senate and House—reviews the FBI’s budget appropriations, programs, and selected investigations. The results of FBI investigations are often reviewed by the judicial system during court proceedings. Within the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI is responsible to the attorney general, and it reports its findings to U.S. Attorneys across the country. The FBI’s intelligence activities are overseen by the Director of National Intelligence."
Who is responsible for accrediting forensic service providers in the US?
Accreditation is the responsibility of the ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB). There is additional accreditation required by the FBI for CODIS labs, using what is known as the Quality Assurance Standards.
Are there are any organisations which provide guidance on ethical issues relating to forensic genetics?
The Swedish Police Authority has an Ethics Board.
Can genetic genealogy be used to identify the mothers of baby does?
The identification of baby does is a controversial use of genetic genealogy but in the US there are no legal barriers to such usage. At GEDmatch the entire database is opted in to matching with all unidentified human remains cases including baby does. Only private and research kits are exempt. The following two articles provide background reading on this subject:
- Does Gail Ritchey belong in prison? by Ariel Ramchandani. Mother Jones, 24 March 2022.
- DNA is now solving decades-old newborn killings by Emily Mullin. Future Human, 16 December 2020.
- Mental health awareness and my thoughts on “baby doe” cases by Brianne Kirkpatrick. Watershed DNA, 22 May 2019.
I am morally opposed to the death penalty. Can I restrict law enforcement access to my data to jurisdictions which do not use the death penalty?
No. Once you have opted in to law enforcement matching there is no facility to restrict access by country or jurisdiction. However FTDNA customers can opt out of law enforcement matching at any time.
Which countries use the death penalty?
142 countries have either abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. In 2018, most known executions took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Iraq. The following countries carried out executions between 2013 and 2017:
Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Botswana, Chad, China, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Nigeria, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Taiwan, Thailand (2018), United Arab Emirates, USA, Vietnam and Yemen. (Data is not available from Libya or Syria.)
Which US states still apply the death penalty and for what crimes?
As of May 2021 the death penalty is authorised in 27 states and can also be used by the federal government and the US military. Eleven of these states have not carried out an execution in the last decade, and in some cases for much longer.
- Death Penalty Information Center
What do the public think about the use of genetic genealogy databases by law enforcement?
Limited information is currently available about the public’s views on the use of genetic genealogy databases and further research in this area is necessary.
- Guerrini CJ, Robinson JO, Petersen D, McGuire AL (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, published online 2 October 2018. In this study the authors surveyed 1587 respondents in the US.
The Pew Research Center published a survey in February 2020 on the attitudes of US adults to sharing genetic data with law enforcement. 48% of Americans thought it was acceptable for DNA testing companies to share data with law enforcement, 33% were against and 18% were not sure. See the Pew Research article About half of Americans are OK with DNA testing companies sharing user data with law enforcement. This survey was part of a wider study into American attitudes to privacy which was first published in November 2019. See the Pew Research article: Americans and privacy: concerned, confused and feeling lack of control over their personal information.
Hazel et al published a qualitative research paper in 2021 on Direct-to-consumer genetic testing: Prospective users’ attitudes toward information about ancestry and biological relationships (PLOS ONE, published online 29 November 2021). The research was based on focus group interviews in Nashville, Tennessee.
Researchers at the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine are undertaking a four-year research project starting in 2021 studying public preferences and policy options for genetic genealogy. See this blog post from ISHI news and the project page on the Baylor website.
YouGov polled 1,621 adults in Great Britain in October 2019 and found 55% of the population thought that the police should be able to access the DNA records of people held in private databases, The results were published in an article in the Daily Telegraph on 4 January 2020.
An informal online survey on the genealogical use of DNA to identify unknown persons was conducted by genetic genealogist Maurice Gleeson in October and November 2018. There were 767 respondents. The results were published online in a blog post entitled How do you feel about your DNA being used by the police? - the results of a survey.
Forensic DNA databases
When does law enforcement turn to IGG to solve crimes?
DNA is routinely used to solve crimes. LE uses many methods to identify suspects. If these two methods do not converge on a suspect, LE may turn to IGG methods. However, in some of the cases where genetic genealogy has been used standard DNA testing techniques have not always been deployed (see below).
Do all prisoners in the US have their DNA in the national DNA database?
CODIS (the Combined DNA Index System) is the name often used to describe the police databases in the US. There are in fact three different databases: Local DNA Index Systems (LDIS) where DNA profiles originate, State DNA Index Systems (SDIS), and the National DNA Index System (NDIS) which allows states to compare DNA information with one another. The national database was implemented in October 1998.
In many states there were no retroactive laws requiring the testing of prisoners. It has been argued that testing this population is a matter of public safety. See:
- Augenstein S. Hidden in prison: Thousands of inmates not in DNA databases. Corrections1, 7 November 2017.
- The US Department of Justice. Using DNA to solve crimes. Last updated on 7 March 2017.
Investigative genetic genealogy has identified suspects in a number of cases where the individual already had a criminal record and had been in prison but had not had their DNA tested. See the article by Jon Schuppe for NBC News A national disgrace; holes in DNA databases leave crimes unsolved for decades, 16 August 2020.
In two cases which were ultimately solved through IGG, the killers were executed without having their DNA taken even though the DNA collection was lawfully mandated at the time.
- Jerry McFadden, an infamous Texas murderer, was identified in January 2019 through IGG as the killer of Anna Marie Hlavka. He was executed in 1999 without having his DNA taken. See the article by Seth Augenstein. Police discover Oregon cold case killer was executed by Texas in 1999. Forensic Magazine 1 February 2019.
- James Otto Earhart was executed in 1999 for the kidnapping and killing of 9-year-old Kandy Kirtland in 1987 but no DNA sample was taken. In 2018 he was identified through genetic genealogy as the killer of Virginia Freeman in 1981. Source: DNA confirms ID of man who killed area real estate agent in 1981.
Are sexual assault kits in the US tested as a matter of routine?
No. There is a severe backlog of around 200,000 untested sexual assault kits. See:
- DeLisi M (2018). Forensic epidemiology: harnessing the power of public DNA sources to capture career criminals. Forensic Science International 291: e20-e21.
- End The Backlog
- Ybos M, Marlowe H (2018). Five ways the media-driven rape kit 'backlog' narrative gets it wrong. The Appeal, 5 March 2018.
- Hagerty BB. An epidemic of disbelief. The Atlantic, 22 July 2019.
In addition, even when the testing is done, hits in the CODIS database are not always followed up because there are inadequate resources for investigation and processing. See: Harmon R. Going beyond CODIS: the illusion of rape-kit testing as panacea. Forensic Magazine 23 December 2015. Retrieved from the Wayback Machine on 27 January 2020.
Do law enforcement agencies in the US have the ability to test the DNA of all convicted offenders?
No. The laws vary by state and depend on the nature of the crime. See the National Conference of State Legislature's publication on Convicted offenders required to submit DNA samples.
Do law enforcement agencies in the US have the ability take the DNA of all arrestees?
The court in Maryland v King ruled that law enforcement have the right to lawfully search an arrested person and to take his DNA sample. In practice, arrestees in many states do not routinely have their DNA sampled or it is only taken for certain specified crimes. See the National Conference of State Legislature's publication on DNA arrestee laws
What is familial searching? How is it different from investigative genetic genealogy?
Familial searching was pioneered in the UK and was first used in 2002. It is used in serious crime cases or in cold cases when there are few or no investigative leads. A search is made of a police DNA database to look for close matches to a DNA profile taken from a crime scene. Close relatives of an offender would be expected to share a significant proportion of an offender’s DNA profile and an offender could therefore be identified through their relatives. Police databases currently use between 17 and 24 autosomal STRs. Matches through familial searching can at best identify a potential sibling, parent, or child of the target. Familial searches are restricted to people who are already in the police database and who are therefore considered to have fewer privacy rights.
For background on familial search policies in the US see the 2015 report and webinars from the National Institute of Justice on Familial DNA Searching: Current Approaches.
Genetic genealogy tests use SNP microarrays which cover between 550,000 and 900,000 SNPs scattered across the genome. Using autosomal SNP data it is possible to identify matches with second, third and more distant cousins. Autosomal DNA databases consist of people who have not committed any crimes, not all of whom have proactively consented to law enforcement matching.
Which US states use familial searching?
Familial searching is not performed at the national level in the US.
According to the FBI website familial searching at the state level is being done in the following 10 states: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Forensic Magazine reported in October 2017 that 11 states have used familial searching: Colorado, California, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota,Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming. The list did not include Arkansas which is in the FBI list. Forensic Magazine suggested that Minnesota and Pennsylvania had discontinued use of the technique as of October 2017.
Familial searching is forbidden by law in Maryland and Washington DC. Familial searching is not currently permitted in the NDIS (National DNA Index System) - the national CODIS database.
Not all of the cases where genetic genealogy was used have gone public so it is not possible to provide a comprehensive list. The following websites contain useful lists:
- The ISOGG Wiki has a list of law enforcement cases solved using genetic genealogy.
- Wikipedia maintains a list of suspected perpetrators of crimes identified with GEDmatch
- Wikpedia also maintains a list of arrest or identifications made with FamilyTreeDNA
- The DNA Doe Project has a list on their website of success stories, active cases and pending cases
How many homicides are there each year in the US?
There were 17,284 reported cases of murder and non-negligent manslaughter cases in the U.S.in 2017.
See the FBI reports on crime in the US.
How many murders are unsolved in the US?
In 2015 it was estimated that at least 200,000 murders since the 1960s remain unsolved.
Source: Kaste M. Why one third of murders in America go unresolved. NPR 30 March 2015.
How do these homicide rates compare with other countries?
Although the number of homicides has declined in the past twenty years, when viewed in international comparisons, the U.S. murder rate is still high compared to other industrialised countries. In 2012, Germany’s murder rate stood at 0.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 4.7 in the United States. See:
- Michael AR, Blatt SH, Isa M et al. Identification of a decedent in a 103-year-old homicide case using forensic anthropology and genetic genealogy. Forensic Sciences Research. Published online 11 March 2022.
- Machado M and Silva S. Investigative genetic genealogy: an ethical and privacy assessment framework tool is needed. Forensic Science Review 2022 34(1): 17-22.
- Dowdeswell TL. Forensic genetic genealogy: a profile of cases solved. Forensic Science International: Genetics 2022 58: 102679.
- Samuel G. Investigative genetic genealogy: can collective privacy and solidarity help? Journal of Medical Ethics 2021 47 (12): 796-797.
- Greytak EM. Genetic genealogy for cold case and active investigations: 2021 update ISHI News, November 2021.
- Roffey P, Scudder N (2021). Privacy implications of the new “omic” technologies in law enforcement. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Forensic Science e1445, published 5 September 2021.
- McEwen N, Pino N, Raphael A, Renna K, Boyer J, Brody LC (2021). Investigative genetic genealogy: ethical, legal, and social issues and directions for future research. Forensic Genomics Volume 1, Number 3.
- De Groot NF, Van Beers BC, Meynen G (2021). Commercial DNA tests and police investigations: a broad bioethical perspective. Journal of Medical Ethics, published online 19 September 2021.
- Angers A, Drabek J, Fabbri M, Petrillo M, Querci M (2021). Whole genome sequencing and forensics genomics. A technical report by the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Commission's science and knowledge service. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
- Rego R and Anderson J. Due process implications of law enforcement agencies using investigative genetic genealogy to solve serious crimes. Alternative Law Journal. Published online 15 April 2021.
- Guerrini CJ, Wickenheiser RA, Bettinger B, McGuire AL, Fullerton SM. Four misconceptions about investigative genetic genealogy. Journal of Law and the Biosciences. Published online 13 April 2021.
- Kling D, Phillips C, Kennett D and Tillmar A. Investigative genetic genealogy: current methods, knowledge and practice. Forensic Science International Genetics, published online 30 January 2021.
- Biometric and Forensics Ethics Group (UK) (2020). Use of genetic genealogy techniques to assist with solving crimes. Published 9 September 2020.
- Byrnes J, Myers NM, Underhill PA (2014). Genetic genealogy in the genomic era. In: Primorac D and Schanfield M (eds). Forensic DNA Applications: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2014, pp483-506.
- Callaghan T (2019). Responsible genetic genealogy. Science 366 (6462): 155.
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- Machado H and Granja R (2020). Emerging DNA technologies and stigmatization. In: Forensic Genetics in the Governance of Crime. Switzerland: Springer Nature, pp85-104.
- Royal Society (2017). Forensic DNA analysis: a primer for the courts. London: Royal Society, 2017.
- Scudder N, Daniel R, Raymond J, Sears A (2020). Operationalising forensic genetic genealogy in an Australian context. Forensic Science International, available online 11 October 2020.
- Scudder N, McNevin D, Kelty SF, Funk C, Walsh SJ, Robertson J (2019). Policy and regulatory implications of the new frontier of forensic genomics: direct-to-consumer genetic data and genealogy records. Current Issues in Criminal Justice 2206-9542.
- Sense About Science (2017). Making Sense of Forensic Genetics. London: Sense About Science, 2017.
- SWGDAM (Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods) (US) (2020). Overview of investigative genetic genealogy, 18 February 2020.
- Wickenheiser RA (2019). Forensic genealogy, bioethics and the Golden State Killer case. Forensic Science International (1): 114-125.
- CrimeBench A blog from Kevin Lord, Director of Lab and Agency Logistics at the DNA Doe Project
- Timeline of investigative genetic genealogy compiled by Leah Larkin, The DNA Geek
- DNA, genealogy, and law enforcement: all the facts. A presentation given by Blaine Bettinger at the Rootstech conference in Salt Lake City in February 2020.
- Kennett D. Forensic Science International, Volume 299, June 2019, Pages 103-113. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0379073819301264
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- See the website of the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy
- "Ramage, Michael S. (2018). "Chapter 15: Forensic Specialization". in Shown Mills, Elizabeth. Professional Genealogy, Preparation, Practice & Standards. Genealogical Publishing Co.. p. 337. ISBN 9780806320724.
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- Murphy H. Why this scientist keeps receiving packages of serial killers' hair. New York Times, 16 September 2019.
- Detectives identify John Doe, victim of late 1980’s homicide. Press release from Snohomish Country, 12 August 2020.
- Legal Information Institute - Cornell Law School - Fourth Amendment