Investigative Genetic Genealogy is in Urgent Need of Standards and a Certification Exam, and the Investigative Genetic Genealogy Accreditation Board is Working to Provide Them
By David Gurney, CeCe Moore, Margaret Press, Carol Rolnick, Bonnie Bossert, Andrew Hochreiter
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This article is adapted from our manuscript, The Need for Standards and Certification for Investigative Genetic Genealogy, and a Notice of Action, published in Forensic Science International volume 341 in December 2022
Investigative genetic genealogy (IGG) has been heralded as the greatest investigative breakthrough since the adoption of DNA for forensic purposes. Hundreds of previously intractable cases have been resolved through leads provided by IGG, and the first criminal cases where IGG was used to identify a suspect have made their way through the courts. As the successes of IGG have mounted, so has the demand for IGG practitioners. At this critical juncture for IGG—where the success of the technique has been proven and the demand for practitioners is increasing—it is imperative that the relevant stakeholders develop a set of standards and a certification for IGG practitioners. To address that need, the authors of this article have created a 501(c)(3) organization, the Investigative Genetic Genealogy Accreditation Board, and we have brought together a diverse group of stakeholders to serve as advisory board members to ensure that a wide range of expertise and opinion is brought to bear. In this article, we outline the reasons that IGG is in need of standards and certification, and we provide an overview of the standards and certification requirements we envision for the field.
There are four reasons that IGG needs standards and a certification exam: data privacy, public trust, proficiency, and accountability.
IGG, like all forms of genealogy, inherently involves accessing records and other information about a variety of individuals, some living and some dead. Family trees shared online and in print include information about people who did not consent to have their identities shared. Yet, all of the information included in these trees comes from public records, and other publicly available information, including documents and photographs voluntarily uploaded to public databases, so it would be difficult for anyone to argue that any rights have been violated by including that information in a public family tree. While all information collected about individuals in an IGG case similarly comes from publicly-available information (or, in the case of direct genetic relatedness, from individuals who have consented to share that information for IGG purposes), in IGG, the purpose of the investigation is to pinpoint a possible violent criminal, unidentified human being, or “Living Doe.” Thus, with IGG, the stakes are higher. It would be irresponsible and unethical for an IGG practitioner to fail to take steps to safeguard the information of all of the living individuals who are discovered in the family tree of an IGG case. Yet, to date, there are no standards that require IGG practitioners to do so.
The success of IGG to date, and its success in the future, depends largely on public trust. Individuals choose to make their DNA profiles accessible to IGG searching in FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch (the only public genetic genealogy databases that currently allow for IGG searching) and individuals choose to share information publicly in obituaries and on social media. Much of that trust relies on the public’s willingness to believe that their information is being used in accordance with the terms of service they agree to. For example, FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch assure users that if they allow their DNA profiles to be used for IGG searching, only certain, very serious cases involving violent crimes will be allowed to make use of the information. If either of those sites decided to simply ignore those terms and allow individuals’ DNA profiles to be used in an investigation involving, say, a petty shoplifting case from decades ago—or, more topically, an abortion case in Mississippi—users would almost certainly stop allowing their DNA profiles to be used for IGG searching. Similarly, if the public believes that IGG is being used to prosecute non-serious crimes, they may become more wary of sharing information publicly on social media or in obituaries.
Even more concerning is that if the public believes the IGG practitioners are routinely violating terms of service of websites, lawmakers may step in and ban the practice altogether, a step that some states have already considered.
IGG practitioners must adhere to terms of service if they want IGG to survive.
As the successes of IGG have mounted, so has the demand for IGG practitioners to help resolve otherwise intractable cases. Many well-meaning individuals have reached out directly and volunteered to help police departments with cases. But there is currently no good way for police departments—or other organizations that might make use of IGG—to know whether any individual is a qualified and ethical IGG practitioner. To be sure, there are success stories here. But we also know of several cases where well-meaning but inexperienced individuals have, at best, wasted a police department’s time and money, and, at worst, botched such a case beyond recovery. To protect the reputation of IGG, and to ensure that it remains a tool for helping to achieve justice, there must be a way for organizations that seek to use IGG to know that the practitioners they hire are both proficient and ethical.
To survive as a field, there must be accountability for IGG practitioners who fail to address the three concerns we have noted so far. Without accountability, an IGG practitioner who ignored data privacy, violated terms of service, and botched cases, would be able to simply turn around and offer their services to another organization, who would likely have no way of knowing about previous issues with the practitioner. Like other high-stakes fields, IGG needs to have an organization that certified practitioners and then holds them accountable if they fall below standards.
To address these four concerns, IGGAB has begun to develop a set of standards and a certification process for IGG practitioners. We believe that IGG should be a self-regulating field, and our goal is to develop a robust standards and certification regime that will earn the trust of the public and lawmakers, such that states will not feel the need to develop their own local regimes but will instead defer any certification requirements to IGGAB.
We envision standards that cover proficiency and ethics. All IGG practitioners who wish to be certified by IGGAB must be able to demonstrate that they understand—at a high level—the methodology, tools, and standard of proof involved in IGG. Thus, the proficiency standards will, address all components of the IGG process, from knowing what steps to take at each stage of a case, to understanding when a lead is ready to be relayed and subjected to verification.
The ethical standards will address the unique ethical issues that IGG practitioners face in their work. From adherence to terms of service and maintaining confidentiality, to limitations on what kinds of cases qualify for IGG, these standards will ensure that any IGG practitioner certified by IGGAB can be trusted to work to the highest ethical standards.
In addition to agreeing to work to standards, to become a Accredited Investigative Genetic Genealogist (AIGG), applicants will be required to pass a rigorous exam that tests their IGG abilities. Because different IGG practitioners use different tools, we are crafting the exam in a way that will cover general IGG skills that all practitioners must demonstrate and a host of specific skill sets, only a subset of which any applicant must demonstrate mastery.
AIGGs will be entered into a database that will be made available to organizations that make use of IGG practitioners. By relying on the database, organizations will know that the practitioners they hire are proficient and ethical.
Finally, to ensure that standards are maintained in the field, we are developing a series of disciplinary actions that will apply to AIGGs who fall below standards. Like other professions, we envision a graded series of disciplinary actions depending on the severity and persistence of the violation.
At its best, IGG is a methodology that can help to bring about justice—by providing leads that may help identify human remains, take violent offenders off the streets, give relief to victims of violent crime, and exonerate the wrongfully convicted. Yet, as the successes of IGG mount, so do the risks that come with an unregulated field. With the robust set of stakeholders that make up IGGAB and its Advisory Board, we are confident that the standards and certification regime we develop will ensure that IGG practitioners are proficient and ethical, so that IGG can continue to provide justice now and in the future.