Saturday, 19 May 2018

Genealogy and DNA casualties of GDPR – farewell to World Families Network, Ysearch and Mitosearch


On 25th May GDPR  the General Data Protection Regulation  will come into force in the European Union. Although the UK is leaving the European Union in 2019, the legislation will also apply to the UK and will be enshrined in UK law through the new Data Protection Bill, which is currently going through Parliament. Although this is an EU regulation, it applies to companies and organisations worldwide which have customers or members in the EU, though it is not at all clear how the EU will be able to enforce the regulation in practice in countries over which it has no jurisdiction. Nevertheless, most big companies outside the EU are taking the legislation seriously and it has already had the benefit of encouraging large American companies like Facebook and Google to improve their previously lax attitudes to privacy.

However, while the aims of GDPR are sound, the legislation is hitting small companies and volunteer organisations particularly hard. Valuable volunteer time is being taken up in interpreting and enacting the requirements. GDPR sets a high bar for consent, and all consents have to be GDPR compliant. Although fresh consent is not always necessary, some organisations have decided to take no chances and have sought renewed consent regardless. Like everyone else, I have been bombarded with e-mails from companies and organisations asking me to give consent to receive e-mails and newsletters that I've already asked to receive. There have been endless other e-mails informing me of updated privacy policies. With the best will in the world I simply do not have the time or inclination to read all the fine details of these thousands of new policies, which rather defeats the object of the requirement for informed consent.

Some people have decided that GDPR is not worth the effort:
There have been two big casualties in the world of genetic genealogy.

World Families Network
World Families Network, a website run by Terry Barton, will be shutting down on 23rd May. Terry decided that the "ambiguity and uncertainty of the bureaucratic requirements" of GDPR "are just more than we care to deal with". See here for the full text of Terry's statement. Terry was acting as administrator for 750 Family Tree DNA projects. These will now all be hosted directly on the FTDNA website, but the pedigree information accumulated over many years will be lost unless new admins can be found to take over.

Wayne Kaufman has kindly compiled a spreadsheet with a list of all the projects available for adoption. You can access the spreadsheet from this link:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1-DvykoSNPBmsUlq8THIIpBLAy1Pojmupxz_k9P9kNW4/htmlview

If you are interested in taking over one of these projects send an e-mail to Terry at World Families or write to FTDNA.

Ysearch and Mitosearch
Ysearch and Mitosearch were set up by Family Tree DNA as public databases where DNA results could be uploaded from any testing company for comparison purposes. Neither site has been maintained for several years now and it is perhaps no surprise that GDPR has prompted FTDNA to shut both sites. Ysearch was also controversially used to identify suspects in criminal investigations, which on three occasions led to the false incrimination of an innocent person. Here is the text of the e-mail that was sent out to Ysearch and Mitosearch customers:
Dear Valued Ysearch & Mitosearch Members, 
On May 24th, 2018, our free, public genetic-genealogy databases, ysearch.org and mitosearch.org, will no longer be accessible as a result of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) going into effect on May 25th. 
As the founders of the direct-to-consumer genetic genealogy industry, we did not make this decision lightly. We believe it is necessary given the resources it would take to make both sites GDPR compliant. The current environment regarding DNA privacy as well as recent events in the news, particularly DNA databases being utilized to solve cold cases, were also considerations, but the rigorous requirements of GDPR would have prompted this action irrespective of current events. 
User privacy policies across all of the major consumer genetic-genealogy service providers have become a topic of national conversation, and it is our goal to ensure that our privacy policies continue to meet or exceed industry norms. 
We encourage you to continue your journey of discovery with us on FamilyTreeDNA, and we thank you for your participation in “citizen science” over the years. 
Sincerely, 
FamilyTreeDNA
The vast majority of DNA results on Ysearch and Mitosearch were contributed by Family Tree DNA customers. FTDNA now monopolise the Y-DNA and mtDNA testing market and are the only company that provides a matching database for Y-DNA and mtDNA. However, Ysearch and Mitosearch also hosted Y-DNA and mtDNA results from customers of other testing companies that have since ceased operations. Relative Genetics, DNA Heritage and GeneTree closed down many years ago. Ancestry stopped offering Y-DNA and mtDNA tests in 2014. Oxford Ancestors has announced that it will be shutting down this summer. Although Oxford Ancestors have not mentioned GDPR, it is likely to have been a precipitating factor in their decision.

With the closure of Ysearch and Mitosearch the DNA results from these other testing companies will no longer be accessible anywhere for comparison purposes. DNA Heritage was acquired by Family Tree DNA and customers were given the option of transferring the results to FTDNA free of charge. People who tested with a Sorenson Lab (AncestryDNA, GeneTree and the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation) can take advantage of FTDNA's Y-DNA transfer programme. Customers of other testing companies will need to get re-tested at Family Tree DNA if they wish to receive matches. Unfortunately, many of the results uploaded to Ysearch and Mitosearch will be lost forever because the participant has either passed away or is no longer active.

Preservation of DNA records
We as a genealogy community need to do a better job of preserving our DNA records. If you are interested in helping to find a solution please join the new Facebook group Committee for the Preservation of DNA Records.

Further reading

Monday, 30 April 2018

GEDmatch, Ysearch and the Golden State Killer

This is a rough and ready compilation of useful links in the Golden State Killer case which I am updating and re-organising on a regular basis as further information becomes available. Suggestions for additional links are welcome.
The coastline of the Golden State of California taken from a viewpoint near Bixby Bridge in June 2017.
There have been a lot of debates in the various genetic genealogy Facebook groups in the last few days about the implications for genealogy following the revelation that GEDmatch was used to narrow down the search for suspects in the hunt for a rapist and serial killer in California known as the Golden State Killer.

I've shared my views in this article for MIT Technology Review:

The brave new world of genetic genealogy

I've provided below a compilation of the most useful links for further reading.

I particularly recommend reading the following articles:

The moral maze of DNA testing by Philip Grass

Genealogy and the golden state killer by Leah Larkin, The DNA Geek

A comparison of GEDmatch and the FBI's CODIS database by Leah Larkin, The DNA Geek

The bull in the DNA china shop by Judy Russell, The Legal Genealogist

The ethics of catching criminals using their family's DNA. Editorial. Nature.

How lucky was the genetic investigation into the Golden State Killer? by Graham Coop and Doc Edge, The Coop Lab.

Dilemma: was it wrong to catch killer with DNA by Peter Calver, Lost Cousins newsletter

My fourth cousins, the Golden State Killer, and the Fourth Amendment by Laurie Pratt, Three Branch Tree

DNA Security: my thoughts in the wake of the Golden State Killer development by Brianne Kirkpatrick, Watershed DNA

A genealogical tragedy of the commons by Jacqui Stevens

How to find a killer using DNA and genealogy by Kitty Cooper

The Golden State Killer and DNA by Roberta Estes, DNAeXplained

Is your genome really your own? The public and forensic value of DNA by Nathan Scudder and Denise McNevin, The Conversation

DNA databases: biology stripped bare by Karlin Lillington, Irish Times

The creepy, dark side of DNA databases by Vera Eidelman of the American Civil Liberties Union writing in The Washington Post

For further information on the case I suggest reading the following article on NPR.

In hunt for Golden State Killer, investigators uploaded his DNA to genealogy site

Make sure too that you watch the interview with Paul Holes, the investigator involved with this case which is included on the above link.

There is an additional interview with Paul Holes providing further details in a New York Times podcast on 4th May 2018:

https://www.nytimes.com/podcasts/the-daily

This article explains how GEDmatch was used:

Here’s the ‘open-source’ genealogy DNA website that helped crack the Golden State Killer case

The US TV programme ABC 20/20 aired a special edition To Catch A Killer on 4th May on the DeAngelo case:

How DNA from family members helped solve the Golden State Killer case 

In this ABC 20/20 Extra segment CeCe Moore provides an excellent explanation of the methodology used by genetic genealogists in unknown parentage cases. This technique was used in the Golden State Killer case:

How investigators built a genetic genealogy leading to Golden State Killer arrest

The 20/20 Extra segment is also available on Twitter

https://twitter.com/ABC2020/status/992591964272021504

This article from the Washington Post has a good overview of the genealogical research that was done in this case:

To find alleged Golden State Killer, investigators first found his great-great-great grandparents

This is a good article by Sarah Zhang covering some of the ethical issues:

How a genealogy website led to the alleged Golden State Killer

Some members of the genetic genealogy community are cited in the New York Times article which also discusses some of the ethical concerns:

The Golden State Killer is tracked through a thicket of DNA, and experts shudder

Orin Kerr looks at the legal implications:

Tentative thoughts on the use of genealogy sites to solve crimes

Yaniv Erlich predicted this use of GEDmatch back in 2014. He was interviewed by Science:

A chat with the geneticist who predicted how the state may have tracked down the Golden State Killer

Ysearch
The public Y-DNA database Ysearch was also used in the Golden State Killer investigation and that search resulted in an innocent person in an Oregon nursing home being ensnared into the investigation. See the report on the Associated Press website:

Serial killer search led to wrong man in 2017

It has since been revealed that the police took out a sub poena to access the customer's account at Family Tree DNA:

A DNA testing company was forced to reveal a customer’s identity for the Golden State Killer case. It turned out to be a false lead

The daughter of the man in the Oregon nursing home has spoken out to say that her father was happy  he was able to help with the investigation:

Daughter says local man whose DNA was tested in Golden State Killer case would do it again

Ysearch has previously been used in two other cases which resulted in the false incrimination of an innocent person.

A New Orleans filmmaker by the name of Michael Usry was falsely implicated in the 1996 murder of Angie Dodge as a result of a weak match found in the then public Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation Y-DNA database. The police were told that a 34/35 Y-STR match indicated that it was "very close to a 100 percent" that the suspect's name was Usry.

New Orleans filmmaker cleared in cold case murder

In reality, even exact matches at 37 markers can indicate shared ancestry dating back for several thousand years. There are also some false positive 37/37 marker matches as a result of convergence.

As a result of this incident the valuable Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation website was shut down by AncestryDNA.

RIP Sorenson - a crushing loss by Roberta Estes

In an investigation into the murder of Sarah Yarborough a Y-DNA match was said to indicate that the suspect's surname was Fuller.

DNA links 1991 killing to Colonial era family

In an awkward coincidence there was a William Fuller who was a colleague of the victim's father. His daughter was the best friend of the victim. In this case no DNA testing was done on the family members but his name was made public and must have led to some unwelcome gossip in his local community. The killer has never been found.

Cops hope Colonial ties reheat cold case

Ancestry.com
According to the book I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara Ancestry.com's Y-STR database was also used in the search for the Golden State Killer:

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=aSZHDwAAQBAJ&q=Ancestry#v=snippet&q=Ancestry&f=false

AncestryDNA discontinued Y-DNA and mtDNA testing back in June 2014 and closed down their Y-DNA and mtDNA matching databases in September 2014:

Ancestry.com announcement regarding discontinuation of Y-DNA and mtDNA tests.

UK position
Although these searches took place in America, Professor Denise Syndercombe Court, Professor of Forensic Genetics at Kings College London, has suggested that the same methodology could be deployed in the UK. See the following article in the Daily Mail:

UK police could now start using genealogy DNA databases to catch criminals despite ethical concerns after US police used one to snare the 'Golden State Killer', says top forensics expert

My view is that it is unlikely that such searches would be used in the UK. There are not enough British people in the GEDmatch database to make a search worthwhile. Such searches are also likely be in breach of article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, I am not a lawyer and we are in uncharted territory so I would not rule out the possibility.

Conclusions
Opinion within the genetic genealogy community has been divided. Many people are happy to have their DNA used to solve a crime and put a potential killer behind bars. Others are uncomfortable with the prospect of police intrusion into a genealogy database. It is up to each individual to make their own informed decision.

It is particularly important that if you are uploading kits to GEDmatch on behalf of relatives you make them fully aware of all the possible uses of their data. If you do not have their consent I recommend changing the settings and making their kits research use only so that they are not participating in the matching database. The same applies to kits uploaded to Ysearch.

For information on changing settings at GEdmatch see this article by David Moberly:

Protecting your privacy on GEDmatch

Update 9th May 2018
I initially decided that there was minimal risk and I intended to keeping my public kit on GEDmatch. However, the Golden State Killer case has now opened the floodgates. Parabon has announced a new genetic genealogy service for law enforcement and has already "screened samples for nearly 100 agencies":

Parabon® announces Snapshot® Genetic Genealogy Service for law enforcement


The DNA Doe Project has announced its second success with the identification of Lyle Stevik:

Dead man found in Washington State, who had ties to N.M., ID'd through DNA

My DNA is already in the databases of the five major testing companies so I do not need to search GEDmatch for additional matches. I will continue to use the tools on GEDmatch but I will no longer be participating in the matching database.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Farewell to Oxford Ancestors


Oxford Ancestors has announced that they will be closing down. There does not appear to have been any official announcement but the following notice from Bryan Sykes, the founder of the company, appears on the website (see also the screenshot above):
Oxford Ancestors is closing down after 18 years. I have enjoyed those years immensely and it has been a rare privilege to have you send me your DNA from all over the world. We started because I wanted people to be able to share in the excitement of the research being done in university laboratories like my own in Oxford but rarely reaching beyond the halls of academe. That has all changed now and cheap DNA tests are widely available, even if their meaning is sometimes dubious. The popularity of ‘ethnic testing’ is a case in point, where even religious persuasion is given a genetic foundation by some companies. Have they never heard of the outrages of ‘racial purity’ and the eugenics movement or is it just one more business opportunity? 
But I digress. Thank you all for your patronage over the years. I am leaving Oxford this Summer to live abroad and write more books and I did not feel the company could be run well like that. 
In practical terms, all outstanding orders will be fulfilled in accordance with our Terms and Conditions and the databases will operate as usual for a few more months. 
Bryan Sykes MA PhD DSc
Chairman
Oxford Ancestors was launched in May 2000 and was the first UK company to offer genetic ancestry tests direct to the consumer. Family Tree DNA and Gene Tree launched in the US at around the same time. Of these three founding companies, only Family Tree DNA is now still in business.

Oxford Ancestors initially offered a mitochondrial DNA test and later added a Y-chromosome DNA test along with a Male Match service. Both tests were low resolution  – an HVR1 mtDNA test and a 10-marker Y-STR test. Unlike their competitors, Oxford Ancestors did not upgrade their offerings and did not drop their prices as the technology improved.

The current Oxford Ancestors Matriline test costs £199 but still only covers HVR1 (400 bases of the 16569 bases on the mtDNA genome). Family Tree DNA now offers a full mitochondrial sequence test (sequencing all 16569 bases) for US $199 (£142). If you're lucky and you buy the test in a sale, and at a time when the exchange rate is favourable, it's possible to get a full sequence test at FTDNA for just over £100. A full mtDNA sequence test is also available from YSEQ for US $165 (£118) though without the benefit of a large matching database.

The current Oxford Ancestors Y-clan test covers just 26 markers (Y-STRs) which is still insufficient to distinguish between different surname lineages. Family Tree DNA began offering a 37-marker test in December 2003, a 67-marker test in August 2006 and a 111-marker test in April 2011. YSEQ also offers a range of Y-STR panels. It's now also possible to buy comprehensive Y-chromosome sequencing tests such as the BigY from Family Tree DNA and the Y-Elite from Full Genomes Corporation, though the cost of these tests is still beyond the reach of the average genealogist.

Because of the high prices and the low resolution of the Oxford Ancestors tests, the genealogists who had originally started surname projects at Oxford Ancestors gradually migrated their projects to other companies, and mostly to Family Tree DNA. Today FTDNA have a monopoly on surname projects. There are now 9,950 surname projects at FTDNA representing 559,646 unique surnames.

However, despite the limitations of the tests offered by Oxford Ancestors, the company has earned its rightful place in the history of genetic genealogy. Many of the pioneers of the genetic genealogy community were introduced to DNA testing by Oxford Ancestors. Ann Turner, co-author with Megan Smolenyak of Trace Your Roots With DNA, took an mtDNA test with Oxford Ancestors which inspired her to launch the Genealogy DNA list on Rootsweb, the first ever genetic genealogy mailing list.

The groundbreaking paper by Bryan Sykes and Catherine Irven on Surnames and the Y-chromosome  (Am J Hum Genet 2000 66(4): 1417-1419) inspired a number of pioneering genealogists to start DNA projects for their surname. Chris Pomery was the first person in the UK to set up a surname DNA project outside of academia. He started the Pomeroy DNA Project at Oxford Ancestors in September 2000, later transferring to DNA Heritage and then Family Tree DNA. I first heard about DNA testing for genealogy when I joined the Guild of One-Name Studies at the beginning of 2006. I set up my Cruwys DNA Project at Family Tree DNA after hearing Chris Pomery speak about DNA and surnames at a local family history meeting.

The demise of Oxford Ancestors is a timely reminder that nothing lasts forever. In the time I've been involved in genetic genealogy I've already witnessed the demise of three other British companies  – Family Genetics, DNA Heritage and BritainsDNA.  Many companies in other countries have also folded or been taken over. Although the market is now dominated by a few large companies there is no guarantee that any of them will still be here in ten or twenty years' time. Following the LOCKSS mantra (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe), I always recommend getting your DNA in as many different databases as possible. If you've tested at Family Tree DNA make sure you fill out the beneficiary form. If you've tested elsewhere you can share your log in details with a trusted friend or relative to ensure that your DNA record can continue working for you in the long term. It's also important to make sure that you download copies of your DNA results and your raw data. If you're running a DNA project make sure you have downloaded all the project data to your own computer for backup.

I think it's unlikely that anyone is now running a DNA project at Oxford Ancestors but, if you are, you will want to make sure you download all the available data while you have the chance. If you're a member of the Guild of One-Name Studies you can contact our DNA Advisor, Susan Meates, and she will help you to migrate your project to Family Tree DNA. See the DNA section on the Guild website for Susan's contact details.

Thanks to Andrew Millard for alerting us to the news in the ISOGG Facebook group.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

DNA lectures from the 2017 Institute for Genetic Genealogy now online


The Institute for Genetic Genealogy (i4gg) is a two-day conference held annually in the US. The 2017 conference took place in San Diego, California, in December 2017. Many of the top names in American genetic genealogy, such as Blaine Bettinger and Ce Ce Moore, were presenting at this conference. There were also talks from representatives from the five major testing companies.

 All the sessions were recorded and these recordings are now available to purchase online. You can either purchase the videos individually for $10 each or pay $99 to access all 22 recordings. There are some very interesting talks and I've already bought access to the entire programme and am looking forward to watching them all. To see the full programme and purchase the videos click here.