How ‘Anonymous’ Are DNA Tests REALLY?


– Welcome to the exciting
world of genealogy by genetics. (laughing) God, this is so weird. (upbeat music) – In 2018, the suspected
Golden State Killer was caught thanks to a partial DNA
match with distant relatives who populated their genetic profiles through the genealogy website GEDmatch. That case took a team of
five people working more than four months, so I wanted to find out just how easy is it to
discover someone’s identity using genetic genealogy. 10 Buzzfeed employees took
a commercial DNA test. – Apparently this is gonna tell me all of my family secrets. – Firmly scrape while rotating the swab for 30 to 60 seconds. – I’ll do 45 seconds. – Rotating and scraping. – Look at all this DNA. – This is long time. (soft music) – Bleh, bleh. – This is my family right here. – The results were
anonymized and sent my way. My first step was to
meet with Leah Larken, a genealogist who blogs as The DNA Geek. She gave me some basic training on how to compare DNA test results and draw family trees. So we’re kinda looking
where trees intersect. – Exactly, if this is one
tree and this is another tree, we want to find where those two trees cross one another, and
then our target person is gonna be descended most likely from where that intersection takes place. – I got to work trying to
identify our mystery DNA samples, knowing they came from a pool of some 1200 Buzzfeed employees. I look for the closest
matches in GEDmatch, then I created family trees,
drawing up public records, online research by genealogy enthusiasts and social media profiles. – I don’t think Peter will be able to find out who I am. – Unless he’s got something that I don’t, I think this is gonna be really tricky. – I don’t think so. I hope not. – I feel like if they found
the Golden State Killer after all of those years, maybe we’re all like really easy to find. – [Peter] I identified two
of my subjects within hours. My colleagues Ben and Mat
both had close family members who had uploaded DNA results to GEDmatch. – Here I am. – Hey Ben, you were very
easy to find I’m afraid. From getting the sample and
looking at it in GEDmatch was less then two hours. – The thing that makes me nervous is that my kids are sort
of exposed, essentially. I mean, I think about
that with social media, but I started to think
about it with DNA too. – [Peter] For my colleague Faron, looking in a second database, Family Tree DNA, made all the difference. It included her mother’s DNA profile. – I was like oh, he’s gonna
know it’s me immediately, ’cause my mom is like all about it, so. – She’s quite a presence online, yeah. (laughing) – Yeah she is. – Social media also
made things much easier. By looking up my colleague
Dru’s closest matches on Facebook, I was able
to find her real identity, even though she thought her Facebook privacy settings were locked down. – I’m astonished,
because also my mother is such a luddite and doesn’t use
Facebook and as she’s said, she’s been locked out of her account. – Yeah, she has three accounts. – Okay. (laughing) – To find my colleagues Elemean and Lam, I essentially used
genetic racial profiling, realizing from the DNA that I was looking for a Sudanese man and a Vietnamese woman, I looked for BuzzFeed employees
who fit those descriptions. Your DNA and the names of your matches pretty much told me where you came from. – Mostly like not surprised
in that there’s not a lot of Sudanese people who have
submitted their DNA for testing. – This is not fair because
you’re working off of Buzzfeed and there’s not that many
Vietnamese people here. That’s just the state of journalism. We need more diversity. (laughing) – My colleagues Sarah,
Maggie, Brandon, and Ken escaped detection because
there simply weren’t close enough matches to find
them using family trees. – I’m a mut, I’m a European mut. I have to say, I feel
very proud that my weird, hodge-podge ancestry
has kept me a mystery. – Like making a guess would just be crazy. I’d just be randomly naming
a white man who works for Buzzfeed, which is clearly not any way of solving a crime. – Your interpretation was
basically I’m gonna look at the results, I went yeah,
generic white dude, all right. – Well I’m very sorry, Peter that you weren’t able
to solve the mystery. (laughing) This sort of emphasizes to me like just how difficult it is and
how absolutely insane it is that they were able to use
this process to catch him. – In the end, I had a 60% success rate uncovering the identities
of six of my colleagues and raising questions
along the way of genealogy, data privacy, and what the future holds. – This was really helpful,
please delete my account of this. (laughing) (soft music)

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