by Jayson Hawkins
Advances in DNA technology over recent years have enabled people to discover genetic predispositions, reconstruct family trees, and track down lost relatives. Nearly 30 million users have uploaded their profiles to DNA sites in hopes of reconnecting with their past or catching a glimpse of future health issues. For law enforcement, however, these databases hold another potential — that of solving untold numbers of cold cases virtually at the touch of a button.
Individuals who have submitted their genetic information to the sites generally have done so under a presumption of privacy. Ancestry.com and 23andMe, the largest sites with a combined 25 million users, operate under the promise that they will not share their customers’ personal records. Even sites that offer free services tend to shield their users’ data from being accessed for ulterior purposes. GEDmatch, for instance, instituted a policy in May 2019 that allowed law enforcement to search only users who had agreed to it. As of November of last year, less than 15 percent of the site’s users had.
Before GEDmatch offered the privacy option, a detective in Orlando, Michael Fields, had used the service to find a suspect from a DNA sample in a 17-year-old murder case. Undeterred by the site’s subsequent policy shift, Fields requested a warrant in July 2019 that would give him access to the company’s entire database of over a million profiles. Judge Patricia Strowbridge of Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit Court granted the warrant, and the next day, the site opened its records to the detective.
Civil rights advocates are concerned that the warrant set a dangerous precedent. “The company made a decision to keep law enforcement out, and that’s been overridden by a court. It’s a signal that no genetic information can be safe,” remarked Erin Murphy, a professor at New York University School of Law. “I have no question in my mind that if the public isn’t outraged by this, they will go to the motherlode: the 15-million-person Ancestry database.”
Fields told an audience of the International Association of Chiefs of Police last October how he obtained the warrant. Several officers spanning the wide array of law enforcement in attendance asked for a copy of the document.
The precise nature of DNA makes it likely that any person can be identified through relatives on any of the major sites. Unless the public demands its privacy be protected, critics warn that future warrants could soon turn genealogy sites into police databases.
Thus far, 23andMe has refused to release customer data to law enforcement. Out of 10 “valid law enforcement requests” that Ancestry.com received in 2018, seven were granted, but they were all related to “credit card misuse, fraud and identity theft.”
No genetic data was released. How, or if, these companies will be able to withstand warrants for that type of information is a legal battle soon to be tested.
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