In what some are calling a “game changer,” a Florida detective has obtained a warrant to penetrate GEDmatch and search its full database of more than one million users.
Experts said this appeared to be the first time a judge had approved such a warrant, and that the development could have profound implications for genetic privacy, the New York Times reports.
The disclosure, made at the recent International Association of Chiefs of Police convention, adds a new wrinkle to the controversy surrounding law enforcement access to consumer DNA sites that currently contain genetic profiles for over 20 million people.
Police in some jurisdictions have already used it to solve cases both new and cold. But criticism has added to the pressure on the two largest sites, Ancestry.com and 23andMe, keep their users’ genetic information private. A smaller one, GEDmatch, severely restricted police access this year, but that may be changing.
“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.” said New York University law Prof. Erin Murphy. “That’s a huge game-changer.”
Fears that DNA tracing could falsely implicate innocent people—even relatives who never provided samples of their DNA—appear to have prodded the company into introducing new terms of service that required users to consent in advance to have their information available to law enforcement.
The company, which holds 1.2 million profiles in its database has changed all its profiles to the “opt out” mode, meaning police have access to only those profiles whose users logged on and voluntarily selected to “opt in” and share their DNA, The Daily Beast reported.
But the latest development was likely to encourage other agencies to request search warrants from 23andMe, with 10 million users, and Ancestry.com, with 15 million.
The Florida decision could affect not only the users of these sites but huge swaths of the population, including those who have never taken a DNA test. That’s because the forensic technique makes it possible to identify a DNA profile through distant family relationships.
Using public genealogy sites to crack cold cases had its breakthrough moment in April 2018, when California police used GEDmatch to identify a man they believe is the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo.
After that, dozens of law enforcement agencies rushed to apply the method to their own cases. Investigators have used genetic genealogy to identify suspects and victims in 70 cases of murder, sexual assault and burglary.
Additional Reading: Debate Grows Over Allowing Police to See DNA Data Stored by Genealogy Firms, The Crime Report, Aug. 23, 2019
Privacy & Policing: Does Your DNA Need a Lawyer?, The Crime Report, May 6, 2019