Book Review: I know who you are

It’s #WorldBookDay so naturally I want to talk about two of my favourite things: genealogy and reading. This is necessarily a longer review than I normally favour because I’m so enthusiastic about the topic & there’s a lot to discuss.

If you are at all interested in genetic genealogy, you will likely already know that a serial rapist and murderer known for decades as the Golden State Killer (referring to California, USA, where his crimes were committed) was unmasked as a man called Joseph DeAngelo. He was found by a team of volunteer (unpaid) genetic genealogists led by Barbara Rae-Venter, a retired lawyer with dual American-New Zealand citizenship. Working with law enforcement, the team uploaded crime scene DNA material to Gedmatch, FamilyTreeDNA and MyHeritage. Note that MyHeritage subsequently updated their terms and conditions to prohibit this. Over a heady 63 day search, the team put in thousands of hours. Initially, the biggest matches were in the 50-65 centimorgan range. The Shared Centimorgan project suggests this is most likely a third cousin but there are lots of possibilities.

When the news broke that DeAngelo had been arrested in 2017, initially Venter chose to remain anonymous, but that didn’t last for long. By October 2018, I attended a talk given by Venter at Genetic Genealogy Ireland. You can still watch her talk on their YouTube channel.

This book is Barbara’s own version of how she became a genetic genealogist and discusses some of her most interesting cases, but always linking back to the Golden State Killer. It’s a short and easy read at 270 pages and I hoovered it up. Each section contains one or two cases which would make it easy to pick up and put down if necessary.

Venter explains the Methodology (yes, she capitalises it throughout) of how she works triangulating the most recent common ancestors (MRCA) of matches to find connections. She names a lot of people in the book, sometimes by first name only, detailing her work. She gives some general advice on the field towards the end of the book, which feels a little out of place.

The ability to identify criminals by what they leave behind is not new. We’ve had fingerprint technology for over a century and forensic science in some form or another for over 50 years. The use of genetic genealogy databases to identify criminals from their DNA matches was new and revolutionary. It has forever changed the face of policing, at least in America.

My biggest issue with the book is the treatment of ethics. She refers to the period between 2015-2018 as a ‘golden age’ when law enforcement could upload a criminal’s DNA to Gedmatch and play around with what was then a database of almost 1.5m people. It was a description that didn’t sit well with me, not least because there was a semantic link to the Golden State Killer. It was a time before terms and conditions were changed on various DNA databases to cover law enforcement usage (or not). When Gedmatch, FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage and the others were set up, the intention was and is to use DNA to advance family history. The original terms of use did not cover law enforcement, and when this type of kit initially started to be uploaded, the users were not informed. Venter name checks Bennet Greenspan, the founder of FamilyTreeDNA several times and specifically thanks him for ‘doing the right thing’ with regard to violating his company’s user agreement to allow her to upload the Golden State Killer’s DNA. At the time of use for this case, MyHeritage’s terms did not prohibit law enforcement but they do now, as do Ancestry and 23andMe. Venter goes as far to say that she wouldn’t have solved this case if she hadn’t had access to the three sites in question.

As a practitioner of genetic genealogy, informed consent must be at the core of what we do. We’ve all heard the examples of people casually taking a DNA test only to discover a skeleton in the family closet. I just recently reviewed Dani Shapiro’s memoir on that very topic. I personally have no issue if my DNA is used to solve a violent crime. But how do we define that? What if they decide to start allowing other crimes to be solved this way. Venter does, at least, point out that the time it takes to do this kind of work makes it highly unlikely that it would ever be employed for anything but the most serious of crimes, but technology can change. What requires a human now might be doable by AI in 10 years. Of course Venter does address the ethical concerns of her profession, but her conscience is clear.

Another serious ethical concern is her involvement in a case of an infant found in Seattle in 1997 who had died very shortly after birth. A sample of placental blood was used to identify his mother, who was subsequently arrested for murder, following something that sounds like entrapment. In Ireland, she would have been arrested for a different crime: infanticide, which recognises that women who cause the death of a baby may be not recovered from the birth and suffering ill-effects. They’re very different crimes, but not in the USA. It does not appear that they ever looked for the father of the baby to consider his role. There’s a distinct air of misogyny in it. Googling the woman’s name, I find that she has been sentenced to 5 years of community custody having pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter.

The author also gives herself props for doing a lot of this work pro bono, although admitting that most of the time she does get paid a modest fee now. It’s indicative of many genealogists: she already had a successful career as a patent attorney and was retired. She doesn’t need to earn a living from this work. That’s great and I hope there’ll always be people who willing give their time and expertise for free in many fields. But it devalues the work of (genetic) genealogists to have high profile work done for free. It makes it harder for others to charge.

Overall, I think it’s worth reading this book yourself. It’s certainly given me a lot to think about and for that, I thank her.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: I know who you are

  1. Well said Claire. I did find the book a riveting read but like you had some unease about her approach to the ethics.

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