DNA and paranoia

To my paranoid cousin who let me take a DNA sample for genetic genealogy:

Yes, dear, there’ve been some news stories lately about the police getting leads in a 20-year-old murder case using DNA that has been tested for genetic genealogy purposes. CNN carried the story; even London’s Daily Mail newspaper did.

DNAYes, dear, I know you said you never want the government getting any information about you, not even your name if you could help it.

Yes, dear, the article does say the police in this case — a murder of a 16-year-old girl in Washington State in 1991 — got a name by hiring a genealogist to check through DNA samples. Robert Fuller, as a matter of fact.

But no, dear, unless there’s something about you that you haven’t told me, you are not going to wake up some morning and find your name in a newspaper article about a murder because you let me take a DNA sample to help our family history.

Understand, dear, that the name the police got using DNA tested for genealogy is that of a man who settled in Massachusetts, oh, about 380 years ago, give or take.1 He’s not exactly on the FBI Most Wanted list at the moment. I’m not given to wagering, but it’s a pretty safe bet that that Robert Fuller did not kill anybody anywhere 20 years ago, and that the police in Washington State are not out looking for him to bring him in for questioning.

All the police were able to get was the clue that the person who left his DNA on the crime scene when that girl was killed is probably a descendant of Robert Fuller, who probably still has the surname Fuller. (Since that kind of DNA is passed from father to son,2 and the first known person with that DNA was a Fuller, all of his direct male descendants should also be Fullers. Unless, of course, a boy somewhere in the last 380 years happened to take his stepfather’s name or there was an adoption or somebody’s mama was catting around or…)

And understand, dear, that except in these really extraordinary cases where the crime is very serious and the police have no clues at all, the chances that the police are going to turn to genealogy DNA databanks is pretty slim. Why? Because if the police have probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and that you committed it, they can walk into any judge’s office in this country and get a search warrant that will let them pick you up, trot you down to the nearest medical facility, and take whatever blood or saliva they want for a DNA sample and they’ll use their own lab, not 23andMe or Family Tree DNA, to do the tests they want.3

And if the police don’t want you to know they’re on to you, they can sneak a DNA sample. They could watch you smoke at a bar and collect the cigarette butts when you leave. They could set up a phony job interview and give you a bottle of water to drink or a piece of cake to eat (in one case they gave the suspect a bottle of water AND a piece of cake and got DNA samples from the bottle and the fork). They could even send you something in the mail and get a DNA sample from the saliva you use on the flap of the envelope when you return that “send this in to WIN!” form.4

So the bottom line is: no, dear, the DNA testing you and I did really isn’t going to have the police at our doorsteps in the morning.

So no, dear, you and Aunt Tilly and all those other cousins out there should NOT start saying no when I ask you to let me get your DNA tested. The DNA testing we do for genealogy is NOT going to have the police at our doorsteps in the morning.

And yes, dear, of course I still love you.


  1. Bryan Johnson, “Genealogy brings new twist to cold case murder of Fed Way teen,” KOMO.com (http://www.komonews.com/news/local/Genealogy-brings-new-twist-to-cold-case-murder_of-Federal-Way-teen-Sarah-Yarborough-137034858.html : accessed 10 Jan 2012).
  2. “What is a Y-chromosome DNA (Y-DNA) STR test? What will I learn?,” Family Tree DNA (https://www.familytreedna.com/faq/answers.aspx?id=8#511 : accessed 10 Jan 2012).
  3. See, for example, United States v. Allen, 631 F.3d 164, 167-168 (4th Cir. 2011) (“Baltimore and federal authorities sought and obtained … the … warrant (that) authorized the collection of Allen’s DNA”).
  4. The Office of the Denver District Attorney collects and reports on these kinds of cases and puts the facts online. “Fourth Amendment DNA Cases,” DenverDA (http://www.denverda.org/dna/surreptitious_collection_and_abandoned_dna_cases.htm : accessed 10 Jan 2012).
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14 Responses to DNA and paranoia

  1. Cheryl Rothwell says:

    DNA may show you are related to folks you’d rather not be though. :-)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Ain’t THAT the truth, Cheryl! And it may even show you’re NOT related to somebody you wish you were! (“Whaddaya mean, my Buchanans weren’t descended from President Buchanan???”)

  2. Kay Haden says:

    Oh my! Loved this blog. It’s amazing what some people can find to worry about. I think Aunt Tilly [or her twin] might be in my family, too…. I’m saving the URL for some of those I’m trying to persuade to join a Y-DNA study.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Aunt Tilly [or her twin] might be in my family

      Are you sure we’re not related??? I literally have one cousin who only gave me a DNA sample if I listed him as John Doe (LastName). Sigh…

      • Kay Haden says:

        We are related, it’s just further back. FF DNA. We decided we were about 8th cousins, Gentry line. Some of the same family traits must have been handed down!

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          Actually the Gentrys have been pretty good about saying yes to testing, thank heavens! Now my Fore line… boy is THAT another story… hmmm… maybe Saturday’s blog…

  3. Well said Judy!! I thoroughly enjoyed this post and the sentiment behind it. Sometimes the living can be as frustrating as the dead.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks, Bret! Folks sure can be … uh … what’s the polite word… um … let’s say wrong-headed at times!

  4. Thank you for putting this into perspective, Judy! Love your style.


  5. Pingback: Follow Friday: This Week’s Favorite Finds » Climbing My Family Tree

  6. Thanks Judy for sharing information regarding DNA.

  7. Bill Emanuel says:

    Oh what a difference a year can make. Have your thoughts changed with revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency is sweeping up massive amounts of metadata associated with voice and e-mail communications. Genealogists may understand more than others just how much can be inferred from such metadata. Given the current Administration’s tendency to justify massive data acquisitions as a means of fighting terrorism, who can argue that inferences drawn from my DNA might not find the “needle-in-a-haystack” that links me to some long-lost cousin in a foreign country who is a known terrorist. I do not consider this much of a risk, but I would like to read that companies collecting DNA data for genealogists would fight to the end to protect that data. How would Ancestry.com react to a FISA court order? I’d like to read an answer from corporate officials before I submit a sample for testing.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Nope, it doesn’t change my mind at all. I remain absolutely convinced that (a) the government is going to use the easiest, fastest, best and quietest way of getting data that it can and (b) trying to get data from genetic genealogy companies is not easy, fast, even close to being best or quiet.

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