The Science Behind the Golden State Killer – Insitome Podcast

Please join Spencer Wells, Founder and CEO of Insitome, former Director of the Genographic Project and Explorer in Residence at National Geographic, Razib Khan, Director of Scientific Content at Insitome and yours truly as we discuss the science behind the Golden State Killer case.

I would like to thank Spencer and Razib for inviting me to join them today. It was fun discussing the case itself and the possible ramifications to this entire industry. I was going to add, “in the future,” but the future is here.

The Golden State Killer case is remarkable because of the combined techniques used to solve the crime which include DNA, genealogy and associated data bases in addition to traditional investigative work.

As Spencer Wells says in the podcast, this case is “Sherlock Holmesian.” What a movie this will make one day!

I wrote about this topic a few days ago in the article, The Golden State Killer and DNA.

How did all of these techniques work together to identify a suspect? How does the actual science work? Is it accurate? Are there issues? What about privacy concerns with more than 17 million people having already participated in direct to consumer testing?

Yes, more than 17 million at the end of 2017 – probably more than 20 million now and maybe 30 million by year end. Razib weighs in on how many is enough for forensic testing.

Learn about the underlying science and hear what Spencer and Razib, both geneticists, have to say.

Please join us at any of the following links:

For those who might not be aware, Spencer’s company, Insitome, doesn’t offer DNA testing for matching, so can’t be used for law enforcement purposes.

Insitome does offer Neanderthal, Regional Ancestry and Metabolism DNA testing.



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18 thoughts on “The Science Behind the Golden State Killer – Insitome Podcast

  1. Excellent podcast & discussion, Thank You.

    It is entirely appropriate to point out what you have, and share your concerns. We need to both personally and collectively understand and openly discuss the ramifications, as well as the inevitability of DNA testing, matching, and sharing along with a keen eye to technology that is yet to be invented or discovered. I personally agree that it is a double-edged sword that likely cuts deeper in one direction than the other.

    I must comment that my “User Manual on Living” attributes common DNA not as far back as Mr. Kahn mentions in the podcast, but rather pre-dates that to a bit before common calendars.

    My manual also recommends that we do unto others as we would have done unto us, and that the truth will set you free. fwiw.

  2. Are you aware that Inisitome will not release results of testing unless a picture is added? I was not informed of this before I tested. I actually did try to post one but they weren’t satisfied and said they would get back to me and six weeks later, I am still waiting. Shady. Carol A. Preece

  3. I just listened to your discussion about the science behind the Golden State Killer case with Spencer Wells and Razib Khan. I so appreciated hearing your common sense and straight forward comments about this issue. Although I’ve been reading and learning from you for years, I’ve never left a comment. I should have so many times! I am very grateful that you continue to share your knowledge and expertise with us. Thank you so very, very much.

  4. The most thorough discussion I have heard to date on the Golden Gate Killer, DNA, and privacy. I will be recommending it to the Digital Privacy workshop by Jessamyn West at the Brooks Memorial Library on Monday, May 7.

  5. Thanks, Roberta. That was a fascinating discussion you had with Spencer Wells and Razib Khan. Spencer’s Genographic Project was the first one I tested at back in 2005. The 20 million number is amazing to me! Who would ever have expected it?

    What I appreciated the most, I think, was just hearing (as opposed to reading!) you all discuss the implications. A little bit less digital, and a little bit more human, lol.

  6. I don’t normally use up my limited bandwidth listening to or watching things like this, but made an exception. A very thought-provoking and well presented discussion. It should be mandatory for all genealogists and everyone who is interested in DNA testing to listen to. Well done Roberta!

  7. Thanks to each of you for an excellent discussion and including the importance of genealogist and citizen scientists in apprehending this suspect.

  8. Thank you for doing an excellent job on the podcast and sharing it. Very important discussion on many topics I have seen raised recently – usually with a lot of misinformation included.

    I thought the most relevant point you made was the lack of any kind of standards for the person interpreting the DNA matches. While this technology has the possibility of doing so much good: finding criminals, exonerating innocent people, and identifying victims, one big mess-up could result in serious unintended consequences. We could get poorly written unnecessary laws (look at SSDI) and all sorts of negative publicity for an exciting new science. May you live in interesting times…

    • “May you live in interesting times…”
      That’s known as the old Spanish curse.
      We certainly DO live interesting times now. If any of us think we can change the times in which we live, we can’t.
      But we can change ourselves. Ultimately all we can do is change ourselves.

      “If you want to change the world, start with yourself.”

  9. Thank you very much for an excellent discussion. I’ve learned a lot from it and your other posts.

  10. Thank you for the interesting pod! It was very interesting to listen to, but you have missed some points there while discussing the technology.
    There were a lot of huh, why are people so surprised, you could test for ten years ago, we know it could be done. I think we should nuance the question – If it could be done, should it be done? Not all actions are appropriate, even if there are possible.

    Another problematic point is talking in a way “It is ok for me if it is used to find a murderer”. If we consider building genetic databases with millions results, then we can’t push such decisions to the end users and just say ‘be prepared, you know what you do’. We are also in the moral dilemma of justifying the means by the ends.

    Such access should be regulated and the genetic information should have decent protection. Such open access to GEDmatch is opening possibilities for misuse. What if someone would use it to identify people of certain origin and persecute them? Would we still argue “It is ok for me if my DNA is used for that, I knew it when I uploaded the results.”

    There is a problem with the original purpose of the genealogical testing. I think there is a risk to frighten potential testers, who are concerned with a potential misuse of the test results. I think that the reaction from the major vendors supports these concerns. They assured asap that they were not involved in the search. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a slight decline in the sales now.

    For the future of the genetic genealogy the question about the security, protection och access to the data should be addressed more thoroughly.

  11. While the points made in the video are indeed interesting, the fact remains: Most people will not see it, or even understand it if they do.

    I struggle to try to get AncestryDNA testers to upload to GEDmatch so I can see what segments we match on, this task will now become much harder. Once someone googles up GEDmatch, this story is likely to pop up, and it will remind them of the perils of disclosing DNA matching information to third parties. As an adopted person, this makes my struggle more burdensome.

    I’m glad they caught a killer, but now I’m in the unhappy position of hoping that his defense attorney is successful in overturning the evidence collected through the deceit of the police agency in submitting the sample from the crime scene. Only if the courts, including appellate courts rule that using a false name to obtain information is an invasion of Fourth Amendment protections will I have a decent chance of convincing AncestryDNA testers to ignore the stories about GEDmatch.

    For that matter, I despair of finding relevant matches from Family Tree DNA, since they knuckled under to give information to law enforcement about testers who themselves had committed no crime.

      • And I’m dumbstruck that most people in the genetic genealogy community are perfectly fine with the usurpation of consumer DNA testing databases by investigative agencies that simply don’t want to do good old fashioned police work to catch perpetrators soon after crimes are committed, before they have the chance to repeat those offenses.

        One of the methods of persuasion previously used in overcoming resistance to testing is that the CODIS database used by law enforcement to find suspects is totally separate from the DNA databases used by direct-to-consumer DNA companies, obviously, that argument is now null and void.

        When asset forfeitures without trial and conviction started in the United States in the mid-1980’s, it was looked on with favor because we were in the middle of the heat of the drug war against crack cocaine, and when laws were passed allowing police agencies to seize property that might have been purchased with suspected drug money, the civil liberties of innocent parties were dismissed. Might the genetic genealogy community feel differently about this if the police milk our consumer databases for suspects for minor offenses?

        I sincerely hope that other evidence is found to convict this suspect, making arguments about the method used moot. That said, you and I have different purposes for our use of DNA testing, if someone decides not to test because they don’t want to open the family can of worms because of family rumors about Cousin John maybe having been mixed up with the mob, then it merely deprives you of a chance of finding another eighth, ninth, or tenth cousin, whereas it deprives me of a way of finding my biological family.

        Sometimes the end doesn’t always justify the means.

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