A current news story involves the use of DNA collected and analyzed for genealogical use, being utilized to track down a suspect from a 1991 Seattle murder case. In December of 1991, 16-year-old Sarah Yarborough was killed at her high school in Washington state. The suspect in the case has remained nothing other than a police sketch to this point and the case has been cold for twenty years now. Last month however, forensic scientists ran the suspects DNA against those in genealogy databases and found that the suspect is a descendant of Robert Fuller, a 1630 settler in Salem, Massachusetts. While this doesn’t track down the actual suspect, the DNA profile does limit the suspect pool for investigators. They say that they can also narrow it down in other ways. They can focus on the last name Fuller and follow geographic location trends for that last name in an effort to track the suspect.
While this all sounds like a great turn of events and I doubt that many would be against seeking justice for 16-year-old Sarah Yarborough, I’m not sure how I feel about DNA used for genealogical purposes also being utilized for criminal searches. I understand that if you give your DNA up for anything, you have to assume that it is available for alternative purposes, I suppose. However, the fact that they are blatantly pointing out that the suspect is being traced through the DNA project intended for genealogical research makes me question whether or not I really want all of my information out there like that.
I have often questioned how safe it is to put all of my family’s information out there on the internet in this world of identity theft. I have been careful to block as much as I can for public access but how safe is it really? I blog about my family, I discuss them with the genealogical connections that I have made online and I post pictures of all of them regularly. While I would love to believe that all genealogists share my love and passion for history and family ties, I quickly found that many of my pictures and much of my information has been taken by those who aren’t quite as meticulous as I like to be in my research. When I see someone using my research incorrectly or the pictures that I have found and posted in the wrong ways, I always contact them and try to rectify the situation. However, we all know that once something is out on the internet, there is not much we can do to take it back.
So, how do we protect ourselves from these situations and potential for adverse effects? First, I think it is important to remember that everything we put out there on the internet is out there for public consumption and use. You have no idea what is going to used or how. Personal details about those still living is important to protect in order to ensure that the information isn’t going to used to harm your loved ones and those you research.
Also, I personally have chosen not publish anything on the internet without some sort of way to track who has access to it. I have made my ancestry.com tree private, though I allow others to view it via a personal invitation. All they have to do is email me and I will invite them to it. While this still allows them to share in my research, I at least have a general idea of who I have released it. Ancestry does a great job of automatically making all living people’s information private but as I have done it myself, there are ways to get around that if you really want to. Overall, just keep in mind that while the internet has become a great friend to family tree researchers world-wide, it can also leave you open to a world of new problems as well.
The article about the genealogy DNA project being used to solve the 1991 murder case can be read in full here.