The Pulse-Pounding Origin Story of USB-C

Season 2 • Episode 17

There’s a new kind of jack in town—well, new as of 2014—called USB-C. This single, tiny connector can carry power, video, audio, and data between electronic gadgets—simultaneously. It can replace a laptop’s power cord, USB jacks, video output jack, and headphone jack. The connector is symmetrical, so you can’t insert it upside-down. It’s identical end for end, too, so it doesn’t matter which end you grab first. USB-C has the potential to charge your gadget faster and transfer data faster than what’s come before, too. And the brand doesn’t matter. My Samsung USB-C cable can charge your Apple MacBook and his Surface tablet. The only question left: Where did it come from? Who invented it? And why?

Episode transcript


Theme begins.

I’m gonna guess that you know what USB jacks are. 

JEFF: It is the most successful interface in the history of personal computing, and it’s migrated into every device under the sun, everything from toothbrushes to power tools to—obviously automobiles, right? 

I’m also gonna guess that you don’t love USB cables. They have three different possible shapes at the end, so you always grab the wrong one. And half the time, you plug it in upside down. It only goes in one way.

The world’s manufacturers listened. They collaborated on a new, improved, supercable that can replace power cords, video cables, audio cables, and USB cables. The connectors are symmetrical, so you can’t insert them the wrong way. The ends are identical, too, so it doesn’t matter which end you grab first. And these cables are interchangeable among gadgets and brands. It’s called USB-C—and I found the people who created it.

I’m David Pogue. And this is “Unsung Science.” 

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Season 2, episode 17: The Pulse-Pounding Origin Story of USB-C.

Honestly, you probably don’t appreciate standards enough. I mean, when you buy a toaster, you don’t have to worry that its power plug won’t fit your wall outlet. When you buy a light bulb, you don’t have to worry that it won’t fit the lamp. 

Gas nozzles always fit your gas-tank opening, every HDMI cable fits every TV, every belt can slide through every belt loop. You don’t have to think about it.

But you should think about it! You are enjoying the work of some anonymous nerds who spent a lot of effort designing those standards, and promoting them, so that every manufacturer would be on board with them, so that you don’t spend your life in a frazzled hell of things that don’t fit other things.

If you want to know how awful that would be, consider a realm where we don’t have standards: Power cords and power bricks. You’ve probably got a box of them, accumulated from over the years, got socked away in some closet. A huge and stupid global source of waste, just because there wasn’t one kind of power cord that’s unified across brands and companies. 


We are gathered here today to talk about one particular standard: USB-C. There’s a hyphen in there. USB-hyphen-C.

USB-C is one really amazing cable. It has no upside-down, like the old USB. You can’t insert it the wrong way. And it’s the same connector on both ends—you can’t grab the wrong end. A USB-C cable can replace the power, video, audio, and data jacks of every phone, tablet, and laptop—from every company. One single way to charge everything you own. One cable to rule them all. I’ve heard it called the Jesus jack.

These days, these jacks come on phones, tablets, laptops, desktop PCs, monitors, cameras, headphones, cars, mice, flash drives, printers, and on and on. It’s how you charge a MacBook or an iPad Pro, or a Microsoft Surface, or a Google Anything, or a Samsung Anything. The formal name is USB Type-C, but normal people never say that.

POGUE: [00:34:25]/ First of all, can I say “USB-C?” Is that fine? 

BRAD: You may. In fact, Jeff will tell you that USB Type-C and USB-C are both registered trademarks, so they’re both valid uses. 

POGUE: Yeah. I noticed in your emails you guys say USB Type-C. So I didn’t know if I was offending you. 

JEFF: No, no, no. 

POGUE: Oh, okay. And who came up with the name USB-C? 

BRAD: Well, I came up with USB Type-C, if that’s what you mean. 

It drives me crazy that an achievement as huge as this, one that affects almost every single person on the planet, goes completely uncredited. Nobody asks where these standards come from. They just sort of show up in your life. Your new laptop has a USB-C power cord, and you go, “Oh, thank god! I don’t have to worry about plugging this cable in the right way anymore!” 

Today, you’re going to meet the people who brought you that life-changing favor.

BRAD: So I’m Brad Saunders, from Intel Corporation. And I help lead the development of USB standards and enable the USB ecosystem. 

JEFF: I’m Jeff Ravencraft. I’m the President Chief Operating Officer of the USB Implementers Forum, which we call the USB-IF for short. I had worked at Intel for 23 years and I retired about 11 years ago. 

I’ve been involved in USB for over 20 years now. Unless you’re involved in standards, people don’t really understand how it all works. 

POGUE: Yeah, no—I mean, has the layperson ever heard of USB Implementers Forum? 

JEFF: No. 

POGUE: But insiders in the electronics industry probably have. 

JEFF: Yes, absolutely. 

Yes, there is, in fact, a committee who decides this stuff. The USB-IF is a nonprofit industry group made up of volunteers from various electronics manufacturers. 

To be honest, their work wasn’t entirely born out of a desire to make our lives better; they also want to sell you stuff. And you’re much more likely to buy stuff if, you know, it actually works.

JEFF: When USB was first, let’s say invented, you know, Intel had a chip. AMD had a chip. Another company had a chip. And lo and behold, none of the products worked together. That was the promise of USB, right? That all this stuff would inter-operate. I could buy a computer that had an AMD chip and a printer from HP and you know, a hard drive from Seagate, and all this stuff would just work together.  

Well, it didn’t. You know, it didn’t work!

And that is why they founded the USB Implementers’ Forum. To iron out these incompatibilities. 

JEFF: That really helped solve it. And that was one of the key functions of forming the USB-IF was to do that. 

The founding members were IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Compaq, DEC, NEC, and Nortel; today, the members include Apple, HP, and over a thousand other companies. Arch-rivals, working together to create a standard that works across all of their gear. Kind of gives you hope for us all, you know?

Anyway. It’s my guess that the reason most people hate regular USB is because it’s a one-sided jack. 50% of the time, it won’t go in because you’ve got it upside-down. It’s super annoying. 

POGUE: Maybe you can explain why anyone thought it was a good idea to have a one-sided connector in the first place. 

JEFF: You know, back in the day, 1994-95, almost every connector was keyed—what we called keyed, to specifically make sure that it went in a certain way. 

BRAD: That was just tradition in those days to make things that way, because in order to make something flippable, you have to take into account other aspects of the connector,  like making it such that it’s symmetric and that pins when you flip it map to obviously the same kind of function after you’ve flipped it. 

So quite frankly, it just wasn’t on their minds to, to add that level of complexity. 

Oh, yeah—I guess we have to talk about the official names of these various ends of the regular USB. The main one, the one that plugs into your computer, is that thin rectangle connector about half an inch wide, and it’s technically called USB-A. 

The opposite end of the cable, the one that went into your printer, is technically called USB-B. It was originally a chunky squarish jack. Over the years, the USB standards group came up with Standard, Mini, and Micro sizes of that B end to fit smaller devices, which only multiplied the number of cables you needed and the number of times we had to spend rummaging to find the right cord. 

The idiotic one-way-up design of USB was one compelling argument for redesigning USB. Apple had introduced its own proprietary cable, the Lightning cable, which you could jam into the iPhone without worrying about which way was up, and that didn’t make its competitors look good.

BRAD: Somebody had started selling a connector that flipped, and happened to be on a thing called the iPhone. We were influenced by the users saying, what you pointed out, “This is a lot easier than a USB connector!”

But the biggest reason to redesign USB was not about convenience of plugging.

POGUE: After 20 years of blanketing the Earth with regular USB, somewhere along the line, one of you guys said, “what I think we should do is improve on this and start a new generation.” What—where did that idea come from? 

BRAD: It had to do with the fact that the USB standard A and the USB micro-B—which was the most popular—were running out of performance headroom. How were we going to get more and more performance through the connectors?  

By “performance,” he means speed. That’s how techies say “speed.”

BRAD: So was it time, now, to start a new connector? And of course, certainly if we did, we would address how maybe to make it even more friendly to use at the same time.

JEFF: I think in addition, you know, devices were getting much smaller and much thinner. The cell phones got smaller. Right? Notebooks that went to laptops that went to tablets. It drives change. 

POGUE: Had the USB working groups gotten quieter and smaller over the decades? Seems like— you know, the standard was baked. It was done. Did you need to keep meeting and having minutes and dues and all that stuff? 

BRAD: It wasn’t really done. I mean, we’ve progressed many, many times performance-wise. 

So original USB, or regular USB, as you called it, it started out at, you know, very, very low megabit data rates, eventually getting up to 480 megabits per second. And then, lo and behold, we needed something much faster. And that’s where USB-3 came about. That was 40 times faster, five gigabits per second. And then ten gigabits per second. 

Sorry, sorry—Dave the Tech Translator butting in again. Here’s something else techies do: They give network speeds in gigabits per second, instead of the measurement you probably know from your phone or computer, gigabytes. If you’re scoring at home, one gigabyte contains eight gigabits. So when they say the top speed of USB was five gigabits per second, that means you could transfer a file in one second whose size is 5/8ths of a gigabyte. 

And if all that makes your eyes glaze over, just forget it. 

BRAD: So we never really sat idle. We’ve always generally looked at improvements in silicon technology to drive the improvements in the signaling methods across the wires, whether it be Ethernet, USB, storage. But eventually it’s going to run out on us, you know.  

By 2012, the speed of USB had indeed run out. The world wanted faster. Faster machines, faster transfer over cables. 

POGUE: It sounds like the impetus for starting from scratch was speed—performance—but obviously there are a whole bunch of other birds you wanted to hit with this one stone. Can you rattle off the complete number of design goals you had for this new spec? 

BRAD: We wanted to make sure we had something that would last for ten, 15, 20 years. So we had to set some lofty goals about where it was going to go. So: data, power, obviously the ability to flip it. Changing both ends of the cable.  

And then size, of course, size was a critical thing. Micro-B was kind of the benchmark for small. 

Micro-B is the charging connector on a lot of older Android phones. 

Brad: Quite frankly, we didn’t quite make it that small. But the reasoning is because what we made was a lot more robust.  

The computer manufacturers on the committee wanted a jack that’d be so rugged, it wouldn’t snap if you shoved the back of the PC against the wall, the way USB Micro-B might.

JEFF: That connector was not mechanically strong enough to support anything other than a cell phone. That connector might, in fact, break because of the way it was designed. And so that—that mechanical part of it forced part of a redesign or an updated design. 

POGUE: Yeah. So not just small, but small and sturdy. 

BRAD: Right. Correct. 

POGUE: Yeah.

All right. So imagine it’s 2012. Barack Obama is President, Hurricane Sandy blasts the East Coast, the Encyclopedia Britannica ceases publication after 246 years. And Jeff and Brad think it’s time to retire the beloved—and behated—USB standard.

BRAD: We went in with a proposal and said, “guys,  isn’t this the right time to get started on—on this proposal?” And it took the better part of two years from bringing up the original idea to actually publishing a specification that’s dated August of 2014. 

It was time to bring together the brightest engineering minds from all the different electronics companies. “USB Implementers’ Forum—assemble!”

About 70 of these engineers began to meet in person about every six weeks. Their mission: To replace the aging USB connector with something newer, faster, and much easier to use.

BRAD: There’s a process, obviously, right? We parsed out some of the work to subcommittees. Like the Connector and Cable had a separate little group that focused really on the drawings and the mechanical requirements. And another group focused on the electrical signaling performance. And then I ran the group that brought it all together and talked about the protocol and making it function properly. 

JEFF: You have these large companies that have the dollars and have the staff where they can dedicate people to a standards work. And then you have a startup where they’re washing the dishes and they’re mopping the floor and they’re also designing a product in the other room. So all of those things  make sure you haven’t missed anything, right, for the most part, right? You need big companies and you need small startup companies and everything in between, right?

Between the in-person meetings, they held virtual meetings for about five hours a week. People brought up complaints and problems, suggested solutions, debated the solutions, voted on them, approved them, and distributed the updates to the other members.

In the beginning, the standard wasn’t yet called USB-C. 

BRAD: In my early project names, I was just calling it NewCon, or New Connector. Because we didn’t have a name at that point. 

I’ve never loved the name USB-C; it’s too techie-sounding. But I guess it’s better than NewCon. 

By the time the specs of the new connector were hammered out, they had a name. 

BRAD: C was obviously the next letter in the alphabet.

POGUE: So at this point, you’ve got all the powerhouse companies involved. I mean, you’ve got archrivals sitting around the table trying to agree on a standard. Isn’t each company elbowing in for its own interests? 

BRAD: Yes. Clearly, we are competitors. There are different perspectives for all parties coming in. But quite frankly, we all had a common goal. 

JEFF: We call it co-opetition. So in the beginning, you cooperate as a group to make a pie. You’re all getting together to make a big apple pie. But once the pie is made, then—then you all compete for your slice of the pie and how big you can get—how big your piece can be, right? We cooperate in the beginning and we compete on the back end, right? 

BRAD: And I’m going to extend your analogy with the pie. Because you’ve made it a standard, the pie gets bigger. The size of the market gets bigger. So, even though we are now carving up the pie because the pie is so much bigger than it would have been if we instead stayed proprietary, there’s a huge opportunity that can be shared amongst many, many participants, and everybody still has a healthy business. 

JEFF: Yeah. There’s enough pie for everybody. 

POGUE: You guys are making me hungry. 

In the beginning, the Implementers didn’t know what their NewCon would look like. They just knew they had a long wish list of features and characteristics for it. 

POGUE: You wanted it small but sturdy. You wanted it to carry data and video and audio and power. You wanted it to be able to work on laptops, phones, tablets, headphones. Every brand should interact with each other. I could—I could borrow a Dell charger to work on my Apple laptop. Flippability, reversibility. Surely there was some point in all this where your—you guys were like, “uh, this part is going to be hard to pull off.”

BRAD: Yes, that’s a true statement. 

After the ads…Brad and Jeff will reveal the one weird trick…that made it possible for USB-C to perform its long list of stunts.

Ad Break

Welcome back! We were talking about the wish list of features that the world’s electronics companies were hoping to include in USB-C, the replacement for the decades-old USB standard. 

High on the list was a desire to wipe out that absurd proliferation of connectors on traditional USB cables. You know—A, B, micro, mini, standard, all that stuff. On the Implementers’ Forum dreamboard, the new cable would have only one universal connector shape. Same plug on both ends. On every cable. From every manufacturer. 

They came up with a tiny, flattened oval, a third of an inch wide. 

POGUE: Was there ever any other shape considered? Did anyone try triangular? 

BRAD: There were some people that were clearly influenced by what was already in the market, and even to some degree we investigated connector designs that might, you know mimic the Apple Lightning, but with more pins and whatever. That turned out to not be technically feasible. 

Remember, because it has to flip, it has to have a symmetrical appearance to it around the various axes, both X and Y. So it had to be symmetrical. Triangles are technically not a symmetrical thing. A square, obviously, or a rectangle could be. But if you have square edges or corners, that becomes more something you have to physically align, visually. 

When I first did the demonstrations of USB Type-C, I was plugging things together behind my back and showing people how easy it was to do. And it had a lot to do with the natural, round, easy edge shape that we came up with. 

Now, inside the exciting world of plug design, the Lightning connector loomed large at the time. That’s Apple’s proprietary charging jack that came on every iPhone and iPad at the time. It’s tiny, it’s sturdy, and there’s no wrong side up. 

BRAD: So I’m going to jump in and say the obvious, which is somebody had started selling a connector that flipped, and happened to be on a thing called the iPhone. We were influenced by the users saying, “This is a lot easier than a USB connector!”

POGUE: Mm hmm. 

BRAD: But we were quick to point out that what they had done for the iPhone, while a great solution for its use, was very limited. It didn’t have any performance margin. It has very few pins. It doesn’t necessarily carry a lot of power. It isn’t really the right solution for what we were trying to do. Remember, we’re focusing not on phones only. We got PCs and  all kinds of applications to consider. 

POGUE: It seems like the Lightning jack is inside out from USB-C. 

BRAD: Correct.

POGUE: In other words, the Lightning jack is—is a tongue with the wires on the outside of it, as opposed to a sleeve with the wires on the inside of it? 

BRAD: Correct. And—and it’s to some degree why it seems smaller, why it’s so much smaller in appearance. Because you don’t actually have all the shell around to protect the thing.  

But it does lead to some technical challenges. If you were to touch one of those contacts to another metal object, you could get an electrostatic shock to the—to the connector or the plug. 

Yeah—getting electrocuted by your iPhone’s power cord would not be a good look. Apple dodged the problem by adding a protection circuit. It works great for something like the Lightning connector, where high-speed data transfer isn’t the point.

BRAD: But those protection circuits are very hard to do for signals that run at gigabit speeds, which are a lot more sensitive silicon and a lot more difficult to protect against. So we had to naturally protect it with shells and a mechanical solution as well. 

Now, the biggest wish-list item for the new connector was to make it faster than USB. Or Lightning. And the obvious way to do that was to include more wires inside, that could all be shunting data simultaneously.

BRAD: The number of signal lines in the cable have dramatically changed. 

JEFF: And so standard A was how many pins, Brad? 

BRAD: The original is four. 

JEFF: Yeah. Four pins. 

POGUE: Only four wires in there?

JEFF: Yeah. 

BRAD: Yes. 

But now, in a USB-C cable, there are… 

JEFF: 24. 

POGUE: So wait a minute. Does that mean that since Type-C is flippable, have you had to duplicate the leads on both sides? 

BRAD: Well, yes and no. So, remember I said we needed more performance. And one way you get more performance  is to increase the number of wires between the two devices and run data in parallel, you might say, right? 

So the original two-wire USB interface was: send signal one way, then listen for signal to come back with what we called half-duplex. And you flicked back and forth to have a conversation or move data. 

But in USB-C, one set of wires carries outbound signals, and a second set carries the return signals.

BRAD: So now we were no longer having to necessarily wait to hear the conversation and go back and forth in a controlled way. We were able to talk simultaneously. Data is going in and data is going out, same time. We even doubled the number of channels that we even did that on—so USB-2 was two wires of data communications. USB-3 was four wires of data communication, and USB Type-C is—is eight. And what we did is we mapped it in the connector so that when you flip it, one channel basically flips to the position of the other channel. 

In other words, the outbound wires become the inbound ones, and vice versa. Clever!

Now, a few minutes ago, when Brad was listing the key design goals, I don’t know if you caught it, but he said:

BRAD: Data, power, obviously the ability to flip it. 

Yes, he said power. Meaning, you can use USB-C as a power cord. 

Now, the existing USB could serve as a power cord for some gadgets—that’s how you charged up some Android phones, for example—but there were two big limitations. First, the power went only one direction: From the computer to the smaller gadget. Second, you couldn’t send much power over a USB cable. Not enough for a laptop, for example. In USB-C, the designers hoped to wipe out both of those limits. 

BRAD: It turned out we were able to map our design about how to deliver more power, and deliver that power potentially in different directions. Because as you know, today, you can connect to a dock or a display, and get the power from it into the PC. 

I cannot tell you how cool that is. What he’s saying is that today’s computer monitors have USB-C jacks—and when you connect your laptop to the monitor, it gets powered from the monitor. 

Now, imagine if you suddenly appeared here with me, in my home office, at this very moment. Well, first of all, I’d be like, “EXCUSE me! How did YOU get in here?”

Anyway, what you would see is an LG widescreen monitor on my desk—connected to my Mac laptop with one single cable. I don’t need the power cord that came with the MacBook. The monitor powers the MacBook, and the MacBook transmits its audio and video signals to the monitor, all simultaneously, all over a single USB-C cable. It’s super awesome.

Now, in the olden days of regular USB, the two ends of the cable were totally different. The computer end was always that skinny rectangle plug. The far end was—well, its shape depended on what you were connecting. But it was something other than the skinny rectangle. So an old USB cable always knows which is the computer end.

But on USB-C, both ends of every cable are identical. And what that means is that power can flow either direction. When one of your gadgets is running out of battery, you can recharge it from another gadget. It’s mouth-to-mouth resusci tation for appliances! A phone can recharge another phone, or your iPad can charge up your headphones. Or, in an extreme case, your phone could even supply a feeble trickle of power to your laptop. You just have to dive deeply enough into your phone’s advanced settings to tell it whether it’s the sender or the receiver of the power.

Now, if you’ve been listening to “Unsung Science” for a while—and I truly hope you have—and if you have, well, thank you!—you clearly have excellent taste! Please tell your friends about this podcast! We have, like, zero advertising budget, so it’s all on you!

Where was I going with this? Oh yeah. If you’ve been listening to “Unsung Science” for a while, then you know my favorite part of these stories. It’s when the inventor or the scientist hits a brick wall. When we find out the hard part. And how they innovated their way out of it. 

In the case of USB-C, the problem was this:

You already know that there’s no upside-down for a USB-C plug. And you now know that it works no matter which end of the cable you grab—there’s no wrong end. But here’s something we haven’t discussed: what happens if there’s a twist in the cable!

See, wires inside a USB-C cable are not symmetrical. One end can be upside-down relative to the other end. So the two gadgets you’re connecting somehow need to know if the cable has a twist in it. For the USB designers, this was the hard part. 

BRAD: You’ve  really keyed in on the hardest problem to solve initially. And that was how can a single connector, this USB Type-C, replace what used to be standard A and micro B and Standard B were all doing?

The solution was to add a special bonus wire in the cable.

POGUE: Do you guys have a name for that magic cable? 

BRAD: We call the wire the CC wire, or the configuration channel. 

And how does the CC wire decide if one end of the cable is flipped? This is really cool.

Every USB-C socket, on every gadget in the world, has two possible places for that magic CC wire to connect. Two little metal pins.

But when you plug in the cable, the CC wire connects to only one of those two pins. The other pin sits empty. 

BRAD: And depending on which way you flip it, that one signal wire connects to one of those two pins. 

POGUE: Come on!

BRAD: And therefore we can actually determine whether the connector is upside down or not in the socket. 

POGUE: So in essence, you’ve taken the chore of determining which is right side up away from the human, and put it into your own connector. 

BRAD: Correct. And the cable architecture. I’ll have you know that this one wire behavior—that one wire takes 70 pages to fully describe within the specification for USB Type-C. 

I kind of left out part of the reason it’s so complex: the CC wire is also how the two connected devices negotiate which one is the sender of power or data, and which is the receiver. The CC wire is the conduit that makes the whole system smart. 

Finally, after nearly two years of haggling and proposing and voting and testing, the USB Implementers’ Forum had something ready to… implement. In August 2014, they published the specifications for USB Type C to the electronics world.

POGUE: Was there some kind of beer bash internally? Did everyone send around bottles of champagne? 

BRAD: No, we didn’t, we didn’t have any parties. 

Instead, Brad says, the engineers who worked on the USB-C spec received the kind of celebratory blowout that only USB engineers can enjoy: acknowledgement at a developers’ conference.

BRAD: That year, we obviously introduced USB Type-C. And the engineers get to proudly stand up and present their creation and answer all the really cool questions about why something works the way it does. 

JEFF: I’m a marketing guy by trade, right? So it would not be uncommon for me at a particular event for a new version to buy lots of shots of whatever—of tequila or whatever—to celebrate. 

And so we do have those times where I’ve ordered many, many, many shots of tequila, I can tell you that. 

Now, I’ll be real with you: Once the electronics companies unleashed USB-C upon the world, the public’s first reaction was… ehh. Like, “COME on. Now we have ANOTHER kind of cable to deal with? And you’re telling me we gotta buy adapters for all the USB stuff we already have?”  

For example, Apple adopted USB-C as the power charger for its MacBook laptops. People were like, “COME on, Apple. You’re changing your power connector AGAIN?”

JEFF: A connector change  is always the most difficult in the industry to pull off. Any time you change that interface for the consumer, it’s extremely difficult to pull off in the industry. 

POGUE: Yeah. What’s in it for them to go through with something they know will upset consumers? 

JEFF: The benefits that they could give to their consumers, number one, is a huge thing. The charging capability, the power, the increase in performance. Right? And this—this ease of use with the cable. I don’t have to flip it three times. I don’t have to have an A and a B. 

Some people also griped that there are now different speeds of USB-C cables. Every cable works; but if you need the maximum data speed, like for a hard drive, or a lot of power, like for a computer, you should make sure the cable you’re using says “80 gigabits per second” or “240 watts” or whatever. Although you generally don’t have to worry about it, because your hard drive or laptop generally comes with the proper cable.

POGUE: I guess we have to ask: Is there going to be a USB-D in a few more years? 

BRAD: Well, I can tell you right now there’s nothing already on any drawing boards to replace it. We do expect this technology to last for many, many years. Decades, in fact, is what we would anticipate. 

But technologies do evolve, and at some point USB Type-C may in fact not be able to keep up. We will continue to evolve as needed within the USB Type-C architecture. 

POGUE: So that means for hard drives and computers that connect over USB-C—same cable, but even faster throughput. 

BRAD: Correct. 

Oh, that’s another semi-downside. Although USB-C, the hardware, is always identical, the USB implementers’ forum keeps upgrading the software that shuttles data across the cable; as a result, different gear handles data transfers at different speeds, which can get confusing. You have to look closely at the logo or the specs of the hard drive or whatever to see how fast it can pump data.

In time, though, USB-C became the hit it deserves to be. These jacks now appear on laptops, tablets, phones, hard drives, microphones, mice, speakers, keyboards, monitors, cameras, headphones, drones, printers, flash drives, cars, hotel rooms, and on and on. Including, by the way, Apple’s latest laptops and tablets. Rumor has it that the new iPhones will have USB-C instead of the old Lightning connectors, too. They’ll have to—because in October 2022, the European Union passed a law mandating USB-C in electronic gadgets. If it doesn’t have USB-C, you can’t sell it. 

POGUE: How about this for recognition: When European Union mandated that USB-C would now be on every phone, tablet, e-reader, earbud, digital camera, headphone game console, portable speaker. You guys did that! 

POGUE: You know, we’re excited that they picked USB-C for the connection and for power. But at the same time, we don’t really support legislating technology. Because the problem with governments is they legislate this thing, i becomes a law, and then, let’s say two years from now, you know—who knows, the technology changes. Well, then all those consumers and that government is now trapped with old technology and they can’t move that fast to change. 

POGUE: Well, then forget about the legislation—stop being engineers and start being human beings. Does it give you a welling sense of pride that you have literally made the world a better place in a small but important way for billions of human beings? 

JEFF: It does for me. I had an echo stress cardiogram test this morning. And I got off the treadmill and this machine that shows a picture of my heart—I look down and there’s a USB port on that machine. And I told the nurses, I go, “look there,” and I pointed at it and the lady goes, “That’s a USB port.” And I’m like, boom! Yes! It’s on that machine!

BRAD: My daughter moved into the apartment a number of years ago and the guy proudly taking her through the apartment, showing all the features, pointed to the wall sockets that had USB ports on it. And the first thing out of her mouth is, “wait a minute, that’s not USB-C. That’s USB-A. Where’s the USB-C??”

POGUE: Tough crowd. 

Because it’s a standard, the days of having to pay for expensive proprietary chargers and cables vanished almost overnight. You want a spare charger for your Mac laptop? You can pick one up on Amazon for 15 bucks—instead of buying an official Apple one for 90.

And slowly but surely, USB-C has made progress cleaning up that universe of e-waste known as power cords and power bricks. Now there’s one kind of power cord that’s unified across brands and companies. My Samsung USB-C cable can charge your Apple MacBook and his Surface tablet.

All because a bunch of anonymous nerds took it upon themselves to work out a new standard to make your life better.

POGUE: Honestly, I sometimes question who we worship in this country. Why are there posters on teenage walls of rock stars and sports heroes? I mean, why aren’t there pictures of you two, shirtless on teenage bedroom walls? 

BRAD: I can’t even picture that. 

JEFF: I can’t either. I don’t really want to. 

POGUE: I mean, in terms of changing the world, though. 

BRAD: There are many people behind this technology, both in developing the specifications and then ultimately developing the real products. So, we appreciate your thought, but…I’m not ready for a poster yet. 

CeCe Moore Cracks Cold Cases with Genealogy

Season 2 • Episode 16

Genealogy has been around a while. So has DNA evidence. But what if you combined the two? What if you could use DNA from a crime scene, compare the unknown killer’s genetics with public databases of other people’s DNA, figure out who his relatives are, and thereby determine his identity? That’s the system that CeCe Moore invented five years ago. So far, she’s cracked over 270 cold cases using this method—and brought closure to hundreds of grieving families.

Episode transcript


Theme begins.

Police files are full of unsolved rapes and murders. If there aren’t any witnesses, and they didn’t leave any clues, how are you supposed to track them down? I mean, even if the bad guy leaves his DNA behind, the police don’t know who it belongs to. Or at least—that used to be true.

CeCe Moore almost single-handedly invented genetic genealogy. She’s used it to solve over 270 cold cases…and hot ones.

Cece: [00:54:13] // we will identify you. It might take days. It might take weeks. / But you will be identified. People are not going to get away with these types of crimes anymore. 

I’m David Pogue. And this is one of my all-time favorite episodes of …“Unsung Science.” 

First Ad

Season 2, episode 16: CeCe Moore Cracks Cold Cases with Genealogy. 

This is the first “Unsung Science” episode that’s ever come with a parental advisory. I’ll tone it down as much as I can, but here it is: this episode involves some grownup topics like violence, crime, and mitochondrial DNA analysis.   

I’m going to begin this episode with a description of the first cold case that CeCe Moore ever cracked. I have to begin with that case. “60 Minutes” began their CeCe Moore story with that case. The New Yorker began their story with that case. The ABC series “The Genetic Detective” began their story with that case. 

I wouldn’t want to violate some kind of journalistic law! So here we go.


One November day in 1987, 20-year-old Jay Cook and his girlfriend Tanya Van Cuylenborg set out from their home in British Columbia, Canada, in the family van. Jay’s dad had asked if they’d be willing to drive to Seattle to pick up a part for his business. Here are Jay’s parents as interviewed in ABC’s “The Genetic Detective:”

Dad: I said, “We’re going to send you down to Seattle, get a furnace. And he said to me, “Can I take a friend?” And I said, “Sure.”

Mom: The plan was that they were going to stay overnight and come home. And he didn’t come back. 

Jay had been strangled; Tanya had been raped and shot.

It was an infuriating case. No witnesses, no description of the guy. Couldn’t be someone they knew, because Jay and Tanya were 13 hours from home when it happened.

Hundreds of tips poured in; all dead ends. 

Tanya’s lens cap showed up at a pawn shop; another dead end. 

All the police had to go on was the killer’s DNA, which they recovered from Tanya’s clothes. 

Now, you might expect that the FBI would have some kind of national DNA database of convicted criminals—and they do. But when they ran the killer’s DNA through that database, it came up blank. Apparently, he was a first-time criminal. This guy’s DNA wasn’t in the database.

A year went by. Ten years. 20 years. After 30 years, the grieving families of Jay and Tanya had to accept that the killer would never be brought to justice. 

Finally, in 2018, a detective heard about CeCe Moore, who’d earned a reputation as a genius at DNA genealogical sleuthing. He asked her if she could look into this case—and WOW, did she ever.

CeCe: We got really lucky.  I found him in probably two hours or less from the time I rolled out of bed. I was not—

David: They’d been looking for over 30 years!

Cece: Well, I was fortunate. 

She gave detectives a name: William Talbott the Second. Here’s detective Jim Sharf, on that ABC show:

Scharf: We found out that he was a truck driver, and our guys started following him around. 

Incredibly, as the detectives watched, Talbott threw a cardboard coffee cup out his truck window. They swabbed it for DNA, and sure enough: His DNA from the cup matched the DNA from the 1987 crime scene. 

Scharf: My eyes got watery and I’m like, “I can’t believe it.” And I yelled, “We got him!”

They had indeed gotten him. Today, William Talbott is serving a life sentence in prison.

Pretty cool, huh? Yes—but not as cool as how she did it. And how she’s solved over 270 other rape and murder cases in the last five years.

As a kid, growing up near San Diego, there were early signs that CeCe Moore possessed, shall we say, intellectual doggedness.

Cece: I was the thick-glasses kid who got teased, the four-eyed brain, the teacher’s pet, the academic person, the person who had to get straight A’s. If I got a 90 on a test, I was upset. If I missed one thing, I was upset. 

But it was not at all obvious that she would wind up revolutionizing the field of    criminology. Her first career was acting, singing, and modeling. 

Cece: In fifth grade, they decided to do a school musical, and they made me do it because they knew I would learn my lines and I would, I would be responsible.

And then I just loved singing. And then people saw me on stage in theater who then wanted to hire me for commercials and other things. I was never intending to be a performer, an actress, and certainly not a model. I’m short. I never thought I could be a model. I was shocked that I got work.

But she did get work—all the way through her 20s and 30s—until she switched to Career number 2.

CeCe When I became pregnant with my son when I was 35, I decided I was done. I was— I went behind the scenes, behind the camera. I produced instead. And I was very happy with that. 

Her first taste of genealogy was an attempt to make a family tree for her niece’s wedding.

Cece: I thought, oh, you know, I could create a family tree for her wedding present. Ha ha ha. Famous last words, right? Because that’s not a project you just do and move on—like that, especially for someone like me.  

She actually never finished the project. But too late! She’d been bitten by the genealogy bug. You know: Building your family tree. A chart where YOU are the tree’s trunk, at the bottom. And then above your name are the names of your parents, and above their names are the names of their parents, and on and on. Some people get really obsessed, and build these family trees all the way back to their great-great-great-great grandparents or whatever. 

Trust me—I know the type. My own grandfather, Welch Pogue, spent six years of his retirement creating a Pogue family genealogy, which he self-published in 1990. He traced our genealogy all the way back to a dude named Fulbert, who died in Scotland in 1053 A.D. Fulbert was my great-geat-great-great-…well, 22 greats…grandfather. 

For CeCe Moore, the pivotal moment was 9/11, when her acting and modeling gigs suddenly dried up.

CeCe: That really gave me time to dig into my own genealogy. 

She entered the pulse-pounding, thrilling world of genealogical research: Poring through birth and death records, marriage licenses, newspaper clippings, census forms. All to find out who married whom, and when, and what kids they had, named what, and who they married, and what kids they had, and when they died..

In 2009, CeCe met the president of ISOGG, the International Society of Genetic Genealogists, a nonprofit of volunteers dedicated to using genetics in genealogy. And she told CeCe about a company called 23andMe. For a thousand bucks—the price back then— they’d send you a tube. You’d spit into it, mail it back, and they’d analyze your genetics. They’d tell you where your ancestors came from, and assess your likelihood to get certain diseases, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. 

Cece: And that’s when my life changed. I said to her, “This is what I want to do. How do I do this?” 

And she said, “You start answering questions.” And she said, “I can make you an admin of the DNA Newbie group. And people will start to think of you as an expert, in time.” 

DNA Newbie was one of ISOGG’s chat boards.

CecE: So I spent all day reading and answering questions on DNA Newbie and reading academic papers as much as I could to learn the underlying science. The more I read it, the more it made sense somehow—it just all clicked. 

In 2010, she started a genealogy blog of her own.

CeCe When people had these really intense family mysteries or discoveries through consumer DNA testing, they were reaching out to me. 

Soon, people were hiring her to track down their biological roots. 

Cece: What I really decided to focus on was people of unknown parentage, adoptees, donor-conceived individuals—the millions of people, as it’s turned out, that have taken a consumer DNA test and found out their father was not their biological father or their grandfather wasn’t. And so that is what I created. I developed the techniques to try to help these individuals that had really significant personal family mysteries. 

Because to me, that was where you could change lives. If you can find your siblings, your birth father, if you can expand that family,  that circle of love and support, that can be lifechanging. 

It turns out that there are three different kinds of DNA tests. 

If you’re a woman, they can test the DNA from your mitochondria—these teensy, tinesy capsules floating in every cell of your body. Your mitochondrial DNA came from your mom. And she got hers from her mom, and so on, unchanged from generation to generation.

CeCe: You likely have the exact same mitochondrial DNA profile as, say, your 10th great-grandmother. 

In fact, if you keep following the line of moms of moms of moms, every woman alive today can trace her lineage back to one woman who lived around 150,000 years ago. Her descendants have gradually populated the entire globe. Genealogists call her …Mitochondrial Eve. 

Mitochondrial Eve…Man, I’d love to have gotten that interview.

Footnote: Don’t get all creationist on me. Mitochondrial Eve was not the first woman. There were thousands of other women at the time; Mitochondrial Eve is just the only person whose line of daughters of daughters of daughters remains unbroken to this day. End footnote.

Then there’s another test—similar, but for guys. They can test the DNA on your Y chromosome—the one that only males have. This kind of DNA can tell you all kinds of interesting things about your dad, and your dad’s dad, and so on—and they go all the way back maybe 250,000 years to a fellow we call, that’s right, Y chromosomal Adam. 

Cece: So it’s not super helpful for recent genealogy. It’s good for learning the origins of your very deep ancestral lines. 

Now, 23andMe was not the first company to offer genetic testing for consumers; that distinction goes to an outfit called Family Tree DNA. But in those early years, Family Tree offered only mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA tests. There was no test that could analyze your entire ancestry all at once, fathers and mothers.

What 23andMe introduced was a test of your autosomal DNA. That kind of DNA comes from both of your parents’ lines, from all your ancestors.  

Cece: And so it’s mixing and mixing, and you don’t know which line it comes from. You might share DNA with someone from your father’s mother’s father’s father’s mother’s line. And so that was what was exciting to me. 

So 23andMe, at the end of 2009, actually came up with this data tool called Relative Finder. And it allowed genealogists to compare their DNA against other people in the database. 

And when I saw that, I dropped everything else in my life. That is when I started thinking of, what could we do with this?

This was a big deal. It’s one thing to get your report back from 23andMe and read neato information about yourself. It’s quite another to upload your data and compare it to other people’s, finding common genetic links with total strangers all over the world. 

Relative Finder didn’t last long. But a year later, something even better came along: (The GED stands for genetic data.)

Today, about 20 million people have taken those genetic tests, from a bunch of different   companies—23andMe, Family Tree DNA,, and so on. No matter which company did your DNA testing, you can upload the data to GEDmatch, to make it searchable by other geneaologists. What a resource! 

With the creation of GEDmatch, and a smaller database run by Family Tree DNA, the art of building your family tree by shuffling through dusty old birth and death records took a screaming leap forward. 

OK. Now you know about the rise of CeCe Moore, and 23andMe, and GEDmatch. 

But there’s one more key player in this story, without whom hundreds of criminals might still be out there criming—and that’s a company in Virginia called Parabon Nanolabs

Greytak: I’m Ellen Greytak. I’m the director of bioinformatics at Parabon Nanolabs. 

Parabon’s original business was selling massive computing power. But one day…

Greytak: The Department of Defense put out a solicitation for, basically, a kit that could predict what someone looked like from DNA. You collect DNA from an unexploded IED or something like that…is there more that the DNA can tell us if it can’t tell us the identity? 

Pogue: Is that possible? To look at a DNA printout and say, “this person had red hair and a big nose?”

Greytak: Yeah. We call it DNA phenotyping. We can tell them the eye color, hair color, skin color, ancestry and the shape of the face of that person just from the DNA. 

Parabon won the contract.

Greytak: We spent a few years developing this system, you know, showing that we could predict eye color, that we could predict skin color and face shape and all of these things from DNA. 

But the question was, what about forensic DNA? And that’s a whole other thing that needs to be thought about. 

Forensics, noun: using science to investigate crime. Parabon’s government clients began asking, “Yeah, yeah, the DNA can tell us what the bad guy looked like. That’s cool. But can you tell me his name?” 

Greytak: We came to the attention of CeCe Moore, who was THE genetic genealogist, literally. And at that time it was sort of like, well, she had this amazing genetic genealogy that could connect DNA back to an identity. And so, we started exploring, could we work together? And, you know, the rest is history. 

So now you know how CeCe Moore, and Parabon, and law enforcement eventually started solving unsolvable cases. What you still   know is how. I’ve kind of been dancing around that, because it’s a whole thing. But very, very cool.

I also need to tell you how the whole thing came crashing to a halt when GEDmatch took its database away.

We’ll get into all of that… after the ads.

Ad break

Welcome back! Our story so far: Law enforcement was approaching this biology-slash-computing company Parabon to ask if it might be possible to submit a piece of DNA, and find out whose DNA it is. Even if it’s really old DNA.

But I did have a question for Parabon’s Ellen Greytak:

Pogue: DNA is organic material, isn’t it? Doesn’t it degrade just like tuna fish salad? 

Greytak: Yeah. DNA is a huge, long molecule, and over time, it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. If you have a perfect sample from today, you can get all 1 million pieces of information that you’re targeting. If your DNA is 50 years old, well, you might only be able to get 80% of them or something like that. But that’s still 800,000 pieces of information you didn’t have before. 

CeCe Moore had been already using genetic genealogy to help out adoptees, people conceived by donors, and even amnesiacs. So when Parabon proposed using the same techniques to identify killers and rapists, she said, “Sure, I’ll give it a shot.”

Cece: Now, of course, they didn’t have any genetic genealogy expertise, and I didn’t have any law-enforcement expertise. So putting those two things together in conjunction with our brilliant scientists like Dr. Ellen Greytak, who could work with that degraded DNA, that mixed DNA. 

Hey, we know her!

The very first case that Parabon and CeCe attempted to solve together is the one you already know about: The case of Jay and Tanya, the young Canadians who disappeared on their trip to Seattle. We may as well use that one as an example.

That killer’s DNA, at this point, was 30 years old—but still usable. Ellen Greytak shipped it to a lab for analysis, and uploaded the results to GEDmatch, and gave CeCe Moore the record number. The big question was: Would any part of this DNA match anyone else’s?

Cece: And I was refreshing, refreshing, refreshing, waiting for that match list, which typically takes somewhere between about 8 hours and 24 hours to load, right? They’ve got to compare that crime-scene DNA against everyone in the database, which was a little less than 1 million people at that time. 

And I stayed up late Friday night checking, checking, checking. And I finally fell asleep with my computer next to me, woke up in the morning, flipped open my laptop, logged in, and there was the match list. 

Now, what do we mean by a match?

By 2018, all of the genetic-testing companies were offering tests of your autosomal DNA, the kind you get from both parents. 

Cece: All of us get 50% from Dad, 50% from Mom. We get about 25% from each of our grandparents, about 12 and a half percent from each of our great grandparents. We almost certainly inherit autosomal DNA from all of our fourth-great grandparents—so, your great-great-great-great grandparents. 

I know what you’re thinking. “This is a really great podcast!” I know; thank you.

But I know what else you’re thinking. “But what are the odds that anyone’s great-great-great-great grandmother ever took a 23andMe test? What was she gonna do, order the kit on her iPhone and drive it to the mailbox in her Tesla?”

Ahh, but one of her descendants might have done so. Someone alive today. And if GEDmatch sees a 1.5 percent match between your DNA and 1.5 percent of someone else’s, then you guys had the same great-great-great-great grandparent. That would mean that you two are fifth cousins.

David: What qualifies as a match? What percent of the DNA has to match to qualify? 

Cece: We can work with well under 1% of shared DNA. I sometimes am connecting back in the 1700s, 1600s, at sixth great-grandparents, seventh. 

If I’m lucky, I’m going to get second cousins or even closer. Most the time it’s going to be third cousins. 

And a quick definition here: If you and I are first cousins, that means we have the same grandparents. If we’re second cousins, we have the same great-grandparents. And so on.

Anyway. Here’s where CeCe Moore revolutionized the industry—by turning the family tree upside down. 

In traditional genealogy, you start with you, and you go back in time. You identify your parents, then their parents, then their parents. The diagram you’re building looks like a tree—an inverted triangle, and you’re at the bottom. 

Cece: What I did that was unique was, I flipped that upside down and tried to use it to identify living or recently living individuals that had never been a focus previously. 

In other words, she starts with that great-great-grandmother or whatever, and figures out what children she had, and whom they married, and what children they had, and so on. 

CeCe: Or reverse genealogy, I call it. Instead of building backward in time, now we’re going to build forward in time. We’re going to try to find those descendants of those common ancestors: who are their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren?

And how does she build this upside-down family tree? Through pure, torturous, tedious, research. 

Cece: The entire rest of my time is spent in public records.  I’m using census records, birth records. I’m using people search databases—there’s White Pages Premium, there’s US Search, those types of things. I’m using social media, where people are interacting with their families. I’m using obituaries, newspaper archives, learning everything I can about these families. And I don’t have any special access. I’m using records that anyone else could use. 

Many things make CeCe Moore unique. But her ability to shut out the world as she goes rabbit-holing is certainly one of them.

Cece: Oftentimes I will work it for 16-hour days, and maybe I’ll just sleep a few hours and come back to it. You just keep going. It’s extremely hard to walk away because there’s so much riding on these cases. There’s these families and victim—victims that are waiting for answers. 

You think, “ if I don’t help them find this guy now, he might victimize someone else.”

Of course, there’s one little problem with this upside-down family tree idea: It gets bigger as it approaches modern times.

CeCe: The tree gets really big. They might have hundreds or thousands of great-great grandsons. 

But isn’t the point of this exhausting exercise to identify one person at the end—the mystery killer?

Yes. And that is why CeCe desperately hopes to find more than one match in GEDmatch. At that point, she starts the whole top-down charting process a second time, hoping that the two genetic networks will eventually intersect. 

CeCe: And so optimally, you’re going to finally narrow it down to one person or a set of siblings that connect to all of these top matches.  

As it turns out, her very first case—Jay and Tanya, from 1987—was one of the easiest she ever cracked. GEDmatch identified two people who shared a whole bunch of DNA with the unidentified killer.

CeCe: Well, that is like…amazing. We used to call that being struck by lightning in the adoption work. 

They didn’t share DNA with each other, which meant they were on different branches of his family tree. 

And I found a man from one side of the tree and a woman from the other tree. And they fortunately had only one son! And so I was shocked. Because I found him in probably 2 hours or less from the time I rolled out of bed. I was not—

David: They’d been looking for over 30 years!

CeCe: And I wasn’t expecting that to be that straightforward. Remember, this was my first suspect case. I didn’t know what to expect. 

Actually, there was one part of this case that wasn’t straightforward. One of the matches should have been a first cousin once removed—but the amount of matching DNA wasn’t the right percentage. Something bizarre was going on. The explanation, she figured out, was—

Cece: Grandma married twice. But the son from the first marriage took the surname from the second marriage. 

David: Oh, come on! How are you supposed to figure that out? 

Cece: Oh, marriage records. The son was born during that marriage, not her second marriage, and he had taken his stepfather’s name.

David: I mean, the more we talk, the less I believe in the American story of the nuclear family. You know, you marry for life. You have kids. They get married for life. I mean, is there any standard family? 

Cece: We learned early in consumer genetics that a lot of people’s fathers are not their biological fathers. It has literally happened to millions of people now. It’s a phenomenon. 

Even way back in time, you know, we want to think our ancestors are so different. They’re not. Could it have been an affair? Maybe. Could it have been an assault? Maybe. We’ll never know those things, but we certainly see evidence of it going back generations. 

David: All right. So let me see if I have this right. So you start with the distant relative and trace all their descendants. 

Cece: Yes. 

David: And then, having done that for multiple families, you need to find the intersection of those upside-down trees. 

Cece: That’s exactly right. And we’re also taking certain things into consideration—who’s the right gender, the right age range to be the suspect, usually who’s living near the crime scene? About 99% of my cases have led right back to the area of the crime scene. It’s almost always a local. 

Then I’m going to look at the snapshot phenotype predictions and say, who has consistent hair color, eye color, shape face, you know, that type of thing. 

Once CeCe hands over the culprit’s name to the police, that’s not quite the end of it. Her sleuthing alone is not enough to convict.

CeCe: It’s so important to emphasize that what I do is just a tip. They’ve got to go and get the DNA from that individual, compare it to their original law enforcement profile. That is what’s admissible in a court of law, not what I do. They have to collect that DNA and get that 1 to 1 match. 

David: Have you ever been wrong?  

Cece: No. So I’ve never given them the wrong name and said, “It’s this guy.” 

I have said, “Look, we’ve got six great grandsons in this family and it must be one of them,” and then had there be a seventh that was not raised with the family, right?  But I do always warn them that’s possible. 

Now, if you’re still there, following along with this story of mitochondrial genetic tests and autosomal DNA fragments—well, first of all, well done, you big-brained thing. 

But you might also be wondering at this point: “Hold on there—are these GEDmatch customers cool with the government using their uploaded DNA records—for the purpose of putting their own relatives in jail?” 

That’s an objection that CeCe didn’t consider at first. 

Cece: Like, who wouldn’t want this? Who wouldn’t want a good deed like this? Who wouldn’t want to find the rapist-murderer of a 16-year-old cheerleader, right? 

But there are all kinds of reasons you might feel uneasy with the prospect of your DNA being used to catch a killer. 

Cece: That’s why it’s controversial, right? Because you never know if sitting around your Thanksgiving table, there’s somebody who’s been getting away with murder or rape. And some people think that person deserves to pay for that crime. And some people think blood is thicker than water, and you need to protect your own. 

So there’s a disagreement there, you know? And it also means some people might test and maybe their son gets arrested. You know, maybe their child, maybe later their grandchild. 

Is it more important that justice is done, that victims of violent crime and their families get answers and resolution and justice? Or is it more important to protect your own family? 

David: Wow. 

Cece: Yeah!

In the end, CeCe decided not to go there. This was 2017 or so, when the idea of using innocent citizens’ DNA to capture killers and rapists was just too touchy a subject. She limited herself to working with people who wanted to be identified, like adoptees and donor-conceived people, or identifying John and Jane Does—bodies the police can’t identify. 

Cece: I was having a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out how I could do this without betraying my own community. And Parabon agreed. They didn’t want to overstep either. 

But everything changed on April 24, 2018. That’s when, after 44 years of hunting, police finally caught the Golden State Killer. 

His name was Joseph DeAngelo Jr., and he’d committed at least 51 rapes, 13 murders, and 120 burglaries. He would have gotten away with it, too—if amateur genealogist Barbara Rae-Venter hadn’t used GEDMatch to identify him. 

It was the first time anyone had used genetic genealogy to capture a bad guy. And it was a wakeup call for law enforcement, who had no idea you could catch people this way. Parabon’s phones started ringing off the hook. 

Greytak: In that first week after the Golden State Killer, we were able to start 150 cases. 

But not everyone was thrilled. Thousands of genealogists felt betrayed. Somebody had used their intimate, private genetic data in a way they’d never intended—and that somebody was the government. 

Of course, many of them didn’t really get what had happened.

Greytak: When the Golden State Killer came out, there were all of these articles saying, “Oh, my God, the police can see your DNA if you test it at Ancestry or 23andMe.” And it’s like, “No, no, no, no, no! It’s only if you explicitly put your DNA in this other database!”

Meaning you’d have to have uploaded it to GEDmatch.

Greytak: And even then, we can’t see the DNA. All we see is, “oh, this person, John Smith, shares this much of his DNA with our unknown person. You know, he shares this little segment on chromosome 1 and this segment on chromosome 18.” That’s all we see. We don’t see the A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s. 

In other words, all GEDmatch reveals is the percentage of DNA two people have in common. It doesn’t reveal anything that’s in the DNA, like medical information, or hair color, or, I don’t know, musical ability.

Even so, GEDmatch was suddenly on the receiving end of blistering rage from its members. 

Eventually, the owner, retired businessman Curtis Rogers, invoked the nuclear option: He declared the entire database off-limits to law enforcement, except for participants who explicitly offered their records for that purpose.

CeCe: And so now you have to opt in actively, meaning when you upload your DNA there, there’s a little box you have to check that says, “I will allow law enforcement to compare against my DNA.” 

Overnight, as a tool for catching criminals, GEDMatch vanished. CeCe’s crime-solving database went from a million genetic records to zero. 

David: Great day for you. 

Cece: That was very painful. It was a horrible day and week and month. 

You know, it eventually grew back, but it was a really hard time because I saw what it meant to these families and survivors of violent crime, to finally get these answers for many of them after decades.

Today, GEDmatch keeps the records of 1.5 million people. About a third of them have chosen to make their records searchable by crime-solvers.

Cece: But it’s still enough that we are having a lot of success. We’ve been able to help solve more than one case a week on average for the four and a half years that we’ve been offering this service. 

You know what’s wild? Almost all of the genetic detectives are women. I asked Ellen Greytak about that.

Greytak: Yes, it is a very female-dominated field. For a lot of these people, it began as a hobby. They started it because they had, you know, a family mystery that they wanted to answer. And then they really enjoyed figuring that out. And they started volunteering to help other people solve their family mysteries.  

Pogue: So at this point, having done—having solved 200 something of these crimes, is there any longer a bunch of running through the office and high fiving and a beer bash? Or is it just like, “oop, throw that one on the pile?”

Greytak: Well,  there’s no running through the office, but there is a very excited email thread that comes out every time. 

You know, that reminds me. So far, this entire episode has been devoted to the process of genetic genealogy. How things came about. How it all works.

But beyond it all, there are people. Victims, families, relatives. Deeply wounded, sometimes badly broken people. 

I want to play you a scene from episode 2 of “The Genetic Detective,” the ABC series about CeCe Moore from 2020. CeCe has just cracked the frustrating case of an unknown man who raped and murdered three young women in the nineties. Turns out his name was Robert Brashers. By the time CeCe identified him in 2018, he was already dead. Suicide.

But at the end of the episode, the producers of the show have arranged for CeCe to meet Brasher’s daughter Deborah. Going in, CeCe’s a little worried about what Deborah will think of her—the genetic detective who revealed to the world that Deborah’s father was a really bad man. 

I was really moved by the conversation. CeCe speaks first:

Cece: How do you feel? 

Deb: Disgusted. Because part of my blood is the blood of a serial killer. They say, “Oh, maybe some things are genetic. Is that going to have any effect on my life?”

But at the same time, I am my own person, and I will make myself however I want to be made.

CeCe: So you’re not mad at me for identifying your father?

Deb: No. I’m glad you did.

The process that Moore and Parabon have developed has solved an awful lot of cold cases—but it’s not just cold cases. Here’s Ellen Greytak again:

Greytak: We have worked on active cases as well. The most recent case we solved was three weeks between when it happened and when CeCe was able to figure out who it was. And so, you know, that’s someone who might have committed other offenses later. And by stopping them now,  this person is now in jail and now they can’t commit any more crimes. 

I mentioned that aspect to CeCe.

David: There is a parallel universe where you don’t exist, where more people have been attacked and killed because those guys weren’t stopped earlier in their crime careers. 

Cece: I think so. I feel very confident that we have been able to save lives and keep people from being victimized and having their lives destroyed. 

The other thing I really hope that we’re doing is working as a deterrent. So as these stories get out, I really hope that people start thinking about the fact that if they commit an intimate, violent crime, they are going to leave their DNA behind no matter how careful they are. We will identify you. It might take days. It might take weeks. It might take years, depending on your population group and who happens to be in the databases. But you will be identified. People are not going to get away with these types of crimes anymore. 

Today, CeCe Moore is busier than ever. She’s a genealogist for the PBS series “Finding Your Roots.” She co-founded the Institute for Genetic Genealogy. She’s still solving cases with Parabon. And she’s still answering everyone’s questions online. 

Cece I have a Facebook group called DNA Detectives; it’s almost 200,000 members. and I have multiple subgroups off of that. I have an Unknown Fathers group. I have a foundling group which people, you know, that were left at birth by their mothers, usually. I have a Switched at Birth group, believe it or not. 

David: Yeah, well, since you have this platform, is there anything else you’d like to say to the public? 

Cece: Yeah, I really do want to be an inspiration to people who think their life is over 40 or 50. This is my third career. I found an incredibly fulfilling life in my forties and fifties.  

I really followed a passion and I dedicated so much to it. Sometimes, you know, my family had to sacrifice, too. My son, maybe didn’t get all my attention. 

But I do want people to know that we’re not done at forties and fifties and sixties and seventies, even, especially as women. 

David: And opt in on GEDmatch. 

Cece: Yes. There are millions and millions of people who have taken consumer DNA tests who could download that raw data, upload it to GEDmatch, and opt in to law-enforcement matching. 

Please, please, please take that step. Because every single new person that uploads can be the key to solving one of those cases and providing answers to a family, getting a violent criminal off the street.