Noble Cause, No Rules

This post has been updated.

The Terms and Conditions at MyHeritage state:

Using the DNA Services for law enforcement purposes, forensic examinations, criminal investigations, “cold case” investigations, identification of unknown deceased people, location of relatives of deceased people using cadaver DNA, and/or all similar purposes, is strictly prohibited.

That’s pretty explicit, yes?  Not much room for ambiguity, is there?  And yet, on Monday, 26 June 2023, this post appeared in an online genealogy group.

Look closely at the match.  The Riverside County Regional Cold Case Homicide Team uploaded the victim’s DNA profile to MyHeritage in violation of that company’s Terms.Screenshot showing a match to "Jane Dohoe" at MyHeritageThe Homicide Team also violated the Department of Justice policy for forensic genetic genealogy, which explicitly states:

Investigative agencies shall identify themselves as law enforcement to GG [genetic genealogy] services and enter and search FGG [forensic genetic genealogy] profiles only in those GG services that provide explicit notice to their service users and the public that law enforcement may use their service sites to investigate crimes or to identify unidentified human remains.” (page 3)

This case presents an example of “noble cause bias,” in which the investigators seem to feel that their objective is so worthy that they can break the rules in place to protect others.

That the homicide team was willing to ignore legal contracts and DOJ guidelines is only part of the story.  One news article says the victim had been “reported missing from the Los Angeles area,” only about 70 miles from where her body was found.  She had four daughters who were looking for her and who were apparently already in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

Why did it take 27 years and an unethical FGG search to identify her?

Othram, a Texas company specializing in forensic DNA analysis, confirmed that they did the lab work and that the FBI was involved.  Whether the upload to MyHeritage was done by an FBI agent, someone from Riverside County, or an Othram employee is unclear.

Additional Reading

  • Elysee Barakett, 26 June 2023, Woman’s body found 27 years ago along 60 Freeway identified using DNA technology, NBC Los Angeles.
  • Christopher Damien, 26 June 2026, Woman identified 27 years after her death. Detectives still hope to catch her killer, Palm Springs Desert Sun.
  • Kelli Johnson and Christina Gonzalez, 26 June 2023, Riverside Co. cold case: Mother of 4 identified as homicide victim after 27 years, FOX11 Los Angeles.
  • Cindy Von Quednow, 26 June 2023, Woman found dead on Riverside County freeway nearly 30 years ago ID’d through genetic genealogy, KTLA.
  • Othram, 27 June 2023, Riverside County DA’s Office, Sheriff’s Department, and FBI Leverage Othram’s Genetic Testing Platform to Identify 1996 Homicide Victim.
  • 27 June 2023 — Added information from the Othram press release.

40 thoughts on “Noble Cause, No Rules”

    1. You may be right. We’ve seen many cases of unethical behavior by FGG practitioners with few (if any) consequences.

  1. Hi Leah. This situation is well captioned and points to the frustrating contradiction in our society as to what police can do to solve a homicide or to identify human remains. Having worked with homicide investigators for more than 11 years, most are not trained in the do’s and don’ts of using genetic genealogy. That assistance comes from volunteer genealogists, who it appears do not know the “rules of engagement.” In today’s policing, we now have advances in technology that bring us to a decision point where we can determine the identity of the deceased. The question now is, should we make the identification because we can? The DOJ guidelines make it clear that the answer is not always yes. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the agency to find the training needed by everyone involved so that they can obey the rules. I am hoping to be one of the first accredited Investigative Genetic Genealogists (IGG) in the U.S., when the Board of IGG can agree on the testing requirements. I have studied their recent announcement about what they think is needed to be accredited. I am hoping they will include the Genetic Genealogy Standards document published on 10 Jan 2015 by a distinguished group of genetic genealogists. In many respects, I think it is a better document than the one from DOJ.

    1. The genealogy in this case was apparently done by the FBI (see updates to the post). I think there’s about a zero percent chance that the FBI does not know the rules of engagement.

  2. Does this mean that the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System is not fit for purpose?

  3. Okay, your point is taken about the use of Myheritage. But here’s just as much of a question. Names of living people are not to be used or publicized by members of the genealogy community. Why would you redact/blur the entries on the first portion of the screenshots and then put it strait out for ALL to see in the second image?!

      1. I recently noticed two variations of “John Doe” popping up in my My Heritage results. There were some additional oddities about one of the tests that left me scratching my head – including the test manager being exceptionally vague about the person’s identity. Thanks for sharing this important info!

        1. Yes, I have one of those at MyH too (will send screenshot to Leah) The pity of this for me is that the biggest segment matches to a mystery Scots/Irish/Northumbrian section of my tree, and I won’t be able to ask John about his family, because he is not real.

  4. Yes if sent to My Heritage by law enforcement they broke the rules.
    For me personally I think the rules need to be changed. I have no problem with identifying a person that cannot be identified by other means. All unknown bodies should be identified as a respect for them and to the family.

    I know there will be people with different opinions and that is their right just as my opinion is my right.

    1. Yes, we all have the right to our own opinions. We do not, however, have the right to violate the DoJ policy or the MyHeritage Terms.

    2. Regardless of anyone’s opinion, we all accepted MH’s T&Cs and thought we were operating under them. LE accepted the T&Cs and then just did what they wanted.

  5. It’s a slippery slope. Given they found the identity by breaking the rules I wonder what implications there could be if that leads to an arrest. A good defence lawyer might be able to get a guilty person off on a technicality.

  6. Just more unpunished violations by police of rules & laws, similar to 1000+/ year killings of civilians by police… Is it any wonder that more & more, people wonder why THEY should obey the laws either!!
    Perhaps these commercial genealogy companies could suspend all cooperation with authorities for 6 months or 1 year for first offense. 2nd offence within 10 years gets them banned forever!! #rd offence with no time limit also leads to being banned forever as well!!

    1. MyHeritage doesn’t cooperate with police in the first place, so there’s nothing to suspend, I’m afraid.

  7. That is quite a high match in my opinion and if I was the unidentified dead woman I would want my identity to be found. Just how I feel personally.

    1. That’s a valid sentiment for yourself, and you can donate your DNA profile to one of the two databases that sell access to law enforcement.

      MyHeritage is not one of those databases, and law enforcement is forbidden to use them by both the DoJ and MyHeritage itself. Disobeying the rules is noble cause bias (sometimes called noble cause corruption).

    2. Why couldn’t her identity be determined by her daughters’ DNA in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System?

      1. Because the National Missing and Unidedntifed Persons System (NamUs) is not a DNA database. NIJ has funded DNA testing of missing and unidentified cases through the NamUs grant in the past, but those DNA profiles exist in CODIS, not NamUs.
        It is a very common misperception that NamUs is conducting DNA analyses and/or maintaining a database of profiles.

        To answer your question regarding the lack of a CODIS association, one would have to know if family reference profiles were in fact developed.

        1. They shouldn’t have needed DNA. Her family was looking for her, and she was found less than 100 miles away. The failure to communicate is stunning.

        2. I agree, and information is the core of NamUs. I was just addressing a misunderstanding that is very common regarding DNA.

  8. Leah’s title says it all.
    Most people want offenders punished. That is beside the point. The average person who use MyHeritage and other genealogy (note the term, please) platforms have not tested or uploaded DNA data so that it can be used for any purposes besides genetic genealogy. Our trust has been abused and our data misused. And no matter what the platforms try to do to assuage our well-placed distrust, the abuse continues. This is the thrust of this post.

  9. If I was murdered I would want someone to find out who I am. I really don’t have an issue with DNA and the Law

    1. I agree, we would all want to be identified. However, I would also like the killer to be caught and punished. Identifying people by breaking rules could lead to the killer walking free. The surviving family would be crushed to know who the killer was and they were walking around free.

  10. I think it is terrible that the companies would prevent the identification of a crime victim!

    1. Should the US government be able to invade all companies for criminal investigations, or just DNA companies? What about foreign companies, like MyHeritage? If US agents can invade a private foreign company, can foreign agents invade private US databases? What if it hurts the company’s business? Do the customers have a choice? Should we extend the exposure to crimes like shoplifting? Where would you draw the line?

      1. I think that the big five DNA databases (Ancestry, 23andMe, MyHeritage, FTDNA and GedMatch) might well have grounds for civil suits against law enforcement for damaging their business. Many civilian are already leery of submitting DNA to these companies because they’re not sure how these companies are going to use their DNA. They may be somewhat reassured by reading the companies Terms of Service, but if the media keeps uncovering cases where Law Enforcement does an end-run around the companies’ Terms of Service, that confidence goes out the window, and the companies are – collectively – damaged as a result.

        1. That’s an excellent point. The damage to the industry in 2018 was substantial, and the hits from unethical FGG practitioners keep coming.

  11. I think Law Enforcement (LE) will continue to do this as long as it’s not actually illegal, and it doesn’t rise to the level of the identification of a suspect being thrown out of court.

    The recent quadruple murder case in Iowa has made this ethical issue front and center, because while it is obvious in hindsight that the suspect was targeted based on a lead generate by Investigative Genetic Genealogy (IGG), from touch DNA on the snap of a knife sheath that was left at the crime scene … LE never mentioned IGG in their Probable Cause Affidavit (PCA) and, after the FBI targeted him, they collected DNA from garbage disposed of by the suspect in a neighbor’s bin near his family’s home in Pennysylvania, worked up a STR profile on DNA found in the garbage, compared it to the STR profile from the knife sheath, and found that it was from the father of the source of the touch DNA on the knife sheath (or I guess it could have been from the son … wouldn’t either have been a possibility with a half match on every allele?)

    That was enough to arrest the suspect.

    The defense is now challenging the IGG. And the Idaho police and FBI are stonewalling. I think the Idaho police had a lab work up the SNP profie off the sheath, then they turned that over to the FBI who did the IGG internally, and the current suspect was identified as a strong lead.

    CeCe Moore, presently the most well-known face of IGG, said that she has worked on 200+ cases and has never had to testify in court. Her explanation was that IGG never provides *proof* that someone is the source of crime scene DNA, it just provides investigative *leads.* At that point, the police follow up, get DNA (covertly or with a warrant) and compare the suspect’s STR profile to the STR profile of the crime scene DNA.

    THAT would be admissible in a court of law.

    So, if IGG is this black box that develops leads but LE doesn’t have to explain how the IGG worked, then LE has a free hand to do an end run around companies’ terms of service.

    And while they might be violating DOJ internal regulations, they’re not technically breaking the law.

    So, does that rise to a level where what they did gets thrown out of court as the “poisonous tree” that taints evidence developed as a result?

    I think all of this needs to be litigated and debated … maybe all the way up to the Supreme Court, and also state legislatures should be looking into it.

    Because until they put guardrails on this … it’s the Wild West and anything seems to go!

    1. Excellent post Alexandra. I agree a company’s terms of service (TOS) is not law and a civilian IGG contracted by LE is not LE. So, the IGG is not bound by the DOJ policy and the worst thing the company can do to an IGG who violates their TOS is block them, or possibly bring civil suit against the IGG.

      I suspect that when an IGG finds a distant cousin to the perpetrator’s DNA on FTDNA or GEDmatch whom they can identify by name, they will then search the public trees on Ancestry and other sites to help identify the perpetrator. While legal, I think this is unethical.

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