Debate Grows Over Allowing Police to See DNA Data Stored by Genealogy Firms

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Balloon DNA. Photo by J. Nathan Matias via Flickr

“Should genetic databases be allowed to make up the rules as they go along?”asks  University of Maryland law Prof. Natalie Ram.  Her comments came as questions continue to emerge about how the growing number of genealogy and ancestry firms cooperate with police.

For example, Bennett Greenspan, president of FamilyTreeDNA, allowed the FBI to see DNA data it had in two cases to see if there were genetic links to other users, the Wall Street Journal reports. One case involved a dead child whose body had never been claimed. The other was from a rape crime scene,  that eventually led police to a suspect in the notorious Golden State Killer case, which left a trail of murders and rapes in California over the course of decades.

Greenspan, who founded the Houston-based company in 1999, didn’t require the FBI to get a subpoena. “We were talking about horrendous crimes,” he says.

But DNA tests inevitably reveal information about many other people too, without their consent, Lam pointed out. ““Taking a DNA test does not just tell a story about me. DNA tests inevitably reveal information about many other people too, without their consent.”

An FBI spokeswoman said, “It is important to note that investigative genealogy is for lead purposes only. All arrests should be based upon independent criminal forensic DNA testing.”

People typically take DNA tests to find long-lost relatives or learn more about their ancestry. But as more people are taking DNA tests, and databases expand, decisions on their uses largely rest with whoever controls them.

One major genealogy firm, GEDmatch, announced in May that it was putting its database off limits to police.

In the FamilyTreeDNA database, the FBI sees what a regular customer sees: the name of the person if the customer has provided it, the amount of DNA that is shared in common, and contact information if the customer lists it. The dead child’s identity wasn’t revealed through the FamilyTreeDNA database.

Additional reading: Should Your Data Be Off-Limits to Police?

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