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For the criminal case sandbox

Contacting a family member for assistance in a criminal investigation isn’t a game.

People’s lives are changed, potentially for all time, when they learn that a family member — however distant — may be a suspect in a criminal case.

So how do we begin to write the rules for those who are already playing in the criminal case sandbox?

That was the issue that came up earlier this week, when genealogist Nicka Smith was horrified by an email a cousin has received asking the cousin to assist in a police investigation.

The email from a “professional genetic genealogist” identified two DNA kits the cousin managed at the third-party database GEDmatch as related in the range of third to fourth cousins to a male suspect in “a string of violent crimes.” It asked for identification of the test-takers’ parents and grandparents, if deceased, and their relationship to a third tested person whose kit wasn’t managed by this cousin. It ended with an offer to help with any family mystery the cousin was working on.1

Nicka’s reaction was uniformly negative:

The person who wrote the email claimed to be a “professional genetic genealogist.” Not an actual law enforcement official who is trained in investigative work. The same person requested the names of the parents and grandparents of the kits my cousin managed without providing any insurance regarding how this information was going to be used. Yes, literally. Without a subpoena, a warrant. Nothing. My cousin was just supposed to provide this information out of the goodness of their heart. There was no room for discussion on how law enforcement even believed they had the right person to begin with – just give me what you know.


Then, at the end there was upsell attempt…after telling my cousin that they’re related to a criminal.2

She concluded: “we AS A COMMUNITY, need to gather our collective edges. Our curiosity and knowledge lead to some amazing tools when it comes to genetic genealogy, but THIS? THIS? This is NOT ok. Not at all. We can try to catch all the killers we want, but we are doing nothing but “stop and frisk” to the relatives of people when we send messages like this to folks. So, let me go ahead and start the real dialogue on this because we are PAST needing it.”3

The Legal Genealogist couldn’t agree more than we need a real dialogue about how to handle these cases… but isn’t quite so negative about this particular contact.

Here’s why — what I think is good about the email:

• The email contact clearly states that the genealogist is working on a criminal case. There’s no attempt to finesse it — no subterfuge, no “hi, we might be related” misrepresentations.

• The email recognizes that the recipient may not be comfortable sharing information “based on the fact that it’s a law enforcement case.”

• The email makes it clear that the genealogist doesn’t need “any information on living people at all” — but see the negative on this below.

On the other hand, there are some things that I don’t like about the email:

• There doesn’t seem to be a recognition that this really is a request for information that impacts living people. The test takers are going to have to be told about this — and you can bet your bottom dollar that it’s going to cause confusion and angst and possibly direct suspicion at members of the family, however distant, who are absolutely blameless.

• Likewise, the email asks for confirmation of the connection to a third test taker who, presumably, is yet another living person.

So… where do we go with this? How do we begin to develop rules, or ethical norms, for these sorts of cases and these sorts of contacts?

The three concepts in the image here have to be at the center of what we do as genealogists:

DNA ethics

We have to be honest, we have to disclose, and we have to build and honor the trust placed in us.

Here’s a start — the newly-adopted ethical rules of the Board for Certification of Genealogists for DNA testers. Adopted in October, the new DNA section of the Genealogist’s Code of Ethics provides that:

To protect people who provide DNA samples

When seeking data from a living person for genealogical research purposes, I will explain how I would use and share the data and the benefits of that use and sharing.

I will explain risks and consequences, such as uncovering unanticipated relatives, medical implications, unexpected ethnic backgrounds, and intentional misinformation about such situations.

I will explain options for openness and privacy and how other researchers could or could not access the data.

I will explain there are never any guarantees of complete anonymity and privacy.

After providing that information, I will request and comply with the signed consent, freely given by the person providing the DNA sample or that person’s guardian or legal representative.4

Some of what this asks for was done by the genealogist in Nicka’s case; some was not; some may not even apply.

But it’s a start — and a guide for anyone, certified or not, who’s playing in the criminal case sandbox.

Because contacting a family member for assistance in a criminal investigation isn’t a game.

People’s lives are changed, potentially for all time, when they learn that a family member — however distant — may be a suspect in a criminal case.

Let’s think and talk about how to do this right.


With full disclosure.

To keep trust with our cousins… and ourselves.


  1. See Nicka Smith, “You want what? I’ll pass,” blog, posted 29 Nov 2018 ( : accessed 2 Dec 2018).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Genealogist’s Code of Ethics,” Board for Certification of Genealogists ( : accessed 2 Dec 2018). Note that this section of the Code is new; it was adopted in October 2018.
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