Your genetic data could be used by law enforcement with or without your consent. FamilyTreeDNA has already been caught aiding law enforcement with their customer’s data.
In recent news, Family Tree DNA started working with law enforcement agencies to track criminals. Known as one of the largest private genetic testing companies in the world, FamilyTreeDNA makes kits for individuals to test their DNA at home. While the average person buys a kit because they just want to learn more about their ancestry and find their relatives, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is using the data to solve violent crime cases.
For more than two years, local, state and federal law enforcement groups have combed through public genealogy databases to find criminals. These databases have been particularly useful in solving cold cases like the mystery of the Golden State Killer. While some of this cooperation is unintentional, the new partnership with Family Tree DNA is the first time a private DNA firm voluntarily allowed law enforcement officials to access its DNA database.
How Do DNA Test Kits Work?
The tests vary based on where you buy them. In general, you will spit in a tube, swab your cheek or do a similar activity to take your DNA. Then, you ship your DNA off to the testing company in a small container. In a laboratory, scientists isolate your cells and look at the alleles to see how they match up to other alleles that they have in their database. At the end of it all, you get a report summarizing your heritage. Right now, Ancestry DNA, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA and LivingDNA are the most popular options. Depending on where you go, the kit costs $99 to $199.
The main goal of these tests is to figure out your genetic ancestry. Some programs like Ancestry DNA allow you to look for family members who have the same DNA and create a family tree. Meanwhile, other programs offer options like testing your DNA for your potential genetic health risks.
There are a few problems with these tests that you should be wary of. If you plan on buying life insurance or health insurance, your DNA test could hold you back. Only one DNA test provider has a policy against sharing DNA results with insurance companies. Since having a higher genetic risk of conditions like breast cancer does not mean that you will actually get the disease, this is an unfair situation for you. Because of your DNA, you could end up paying more for the same insurance.
Another major flaw with these programs is their privacy policies in regard to law enforcement agencies. Companies like FamilyTreeDNA deliberately partner with agencies like the FBI. If the FBI wants to find a killer or the killer’s relatives, they can look at the DNA database. Even if you did nothing wrong, the FBI could look at your DNA without ever needing a warrant. By providing your DNA, you are also giving the FBI a way to find any current, past or future family members who might leave behind DNA at a crime scene.
How DNA Data Is Being Used by Law Enforcement
FamilyTreeDNA is by far the most blatant case of genetic companies working with law enforcement. Recently, the company even created an advertisement with Ed Smart. Smart is famous as the father of the kidnapping victim, Elizabeth Smart. In the video, Ed Smart tells viewers to give FamilyTreeDNA their DNA to help them catch criminals.
There are a few flaws in this plan. Even if you are an avid supporter of law enforcement, you might not be open to catching all kinds of criminals. By its nature, your DNA is only going to help the government find criminals who are related to you. While many people are fine with their DNA locking up their aunt or grandfather, other people may be far less willing to help law enforcement officials arrest their loved ones.
A recent example of this happening was with the Golden State Killer. When DNA companies first started, they primarily worked to help customers find their family histories and health problems. Then, police used a DNA database at a genealogy website to scour the world for distant relatives of the Golden State Killer. Once they hit a match, they only had to find out which male relative was the actual killer. Now, the same idea is being used with dozens of murders and rapes.
Not everyone is interested in sharing their DNA with the federal government. In February 2019, FamilyTreeDNA received a lot of negative publicity for working with the FBI. The whole story started in late 2018 when the company realized that the FBI was secretly uploading genetic profiles from crime scenes.
In the case of the Golden State Killer, the FBI used a public genealogy website known as GEDmatch. It hit a distant relative of Joseph DeAngelo. As soon as the officers got the hit they needed, they were quickly able to research and figure out which male relative was the guilty party. The surprising part of the whole thing is that the police never even needed a warrant to access the database.
GEDmatch found out about their involvement in the Golden State Killer case at the same time as the general public. With FamilyTreeDNA, the company actually hid their involvement with law enforcement officials. According to a poll by Maurice Gleeson, 85 percent of genealogists were reasonably comfortable with law enforcement using their profile. The problem for genealogists is that FamilyTreeDNA hid what they were doing and gave law enforcement agencies access to the database without telling anyone.
Rather than try to minimize their actions, FamilyTreeDNA decided to capitalize on them. Other DNA companies like to talk about privacy and how consumers’ information is protected. FamilyTreeDNA uses their lack of privacy as a selling point. Investigators can easily upload their suspect’s DNA profile to the website to look for similar DNA.
In theory, you could opt out of data sharing. FamilyTreeDNA allows users to speak up if they do not want to take part in law enforcement investigations, but less than 1 percent of customers actually choose to do this in the first week. Plus, opting out of data sharing defeats one of the main purposes of the service. Finding family members through a DNA match is one of the reasons why people pay for the test. If you have to opt out of that service to maintain your privacy, then you are missing out on one of the benefits you are paying for.
Will This Trend Keep Going?
Now that law enforcement officials know the potential power of DNA databases, they are going all-in to take advantage of them. A company called Parabon NanoLabs is making it even easier by creating forensic sketches based on the person’s DNA profile. On February 15, 2019, state troopers in Alaska were able to arrest a man for sexually assaulting and killing a college student in 1993 because of Parabon’s help. Less than a week later, police in California’s Orange County arrested a man for the 1973 murder of an 11-year-old child.
To use these programs, law enforcement officials look for self-taught genealogists to teach them how to use the databases. Each day, this process becomes even easier. From May of 2018 to March of 2019, more than 200,000 profiles were added to GEDMatch. Right now, officers estimate that it is possible to link nearly every American with European ancestry to at least a third cousin.
When it comes to the legality of this practice, it looks like consumers will have to wait for new regulations about genetic surveillance to come out. At some point, legislatures may add new bans for things like looking up the suspect’s medical information in their DNA. Someday, they may limit this practice to just serious crimes or force police to follow other leads first before returning to familial DNA. Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission is currently investigating privacy practices at organizations like 23andMe and Ancestry.
What Are Possible Problems and Concerns for Buyers of DNA Test Kits?
Obviously, you should be worried about buying a test kit if you have ever committed a crime. If it was a violent crime, police can already search through the database and discover your involvement. The rule about violent crimes is only in place for the moment. Since this rule was made up by the genetic testing company, it can be easily removed by them as well. Someday, the police could also have access to your DNA if you accidentally spent a counterfeit bill or walked out of a grocery store without remembering to pay. Limiting DNA access to merely violent crimes is only a restriction for the present.
There is the added worry that your DNA profile may get one of your relatives put in prison. While many people may not be concerned about locking up a relative over a violent crime, the same sentiment may not be true for non-violent offenses. Your DNA could end up leading to a sibling or parent going to jail for an old, non-violent crime.
One person’s DNA can lead to a potentially large number of arrests. In one case, a woman in Washington State discovered this possibility by surprise. While her brother was concerned that sharing DNA would get a family member arrested, she decided to share it anyway. Then, the police ended up using her DNA to arrest her second cousin twice removed in Iowa for the crime of murder. She had never actually met or even heard of the man who was arrested.
There are definitely concerns that genetic companies could expand law enforcement access even more. The story of the Golden State Killer has given this kind of access a good reputation. During his active years, the Golden States Killer murdered 13 people and raped more than 50. This kind of story advertises the advantages of losing your privacy without showing any of the disadvantages.
Police knew that cases of dangerous serial killers would make the public sympathetic toward DNA sharing. Back in the 1990s, the police used the same approach for building their own DNA databases. Those police databases were not created by taking your DNA for an unpaid parking ticket or other innocuous activities. Law enforcement officials started them by taking DNA from the worst offenders imaginable. Now, local departments use programs like “stop and spit” to take DNA from everyone as they build on the same databases.
There are even more problems that people will have to face as forensic DNA spreads. If someone in your extended family tree is a murderer, all of the people with that same amount of DNA could come under suspicion. It is also possible that getting a hit through one of these sites could mean that an individual will have to go through a DNA test with the police even though there might not be any evidence actually connecting them to the real crime.
No family tree is perfect, and most people want to keep their family problems quietly at home. If the police gain access to your DNA, it can expose potential secrets. Incest, child abandonment and infidelity can all get discovered when police show up with the right DNA, but the wrong family tree.
Perhaps the biggest issue is for the people that this program seeks to protect. Instead of being helped through DNA database, victims could actually be harmed. A victim may feel pressured to stay quiet about a crime because it could implicate their relatives in other offenses. They may be afraid of reporting a rape if they know that the police will find out their father stole a few items as a teenager.
These kinds of concerns have actually been around for years. In the early 2000s, DNA technology began to advance significantly. The FBI had a national DNA index known as CODIS. Around this time, states started to debate how ethical and legal it was to do a familial search in CODIS. For this kind of search, you only look for partial DNA matches to find the suspect’s family members.
Ultimately, the FBI decided not to use familial searches in CODIS, but their decision was not because of any ethical or legal reason. CODIS only includes 20 genetic markers in each profile. While this works well if you are looking for an exact match for all 20 markers, it is less successful if you want a partial match for finding a family member. Genetic genealogists and consumer tests use hundreds of thousands of data points. As a result, the FBI decided not do familial matches in CODIS because they would be horrible at actually locating relatives accurately.
Once someone decides to give up their DNA, they also give away their child’s privacy and the privacy of all of their descendants. At the moment, regulations on this topic are slim. The FBI first authorized familial searches in CODIS in 2006, but a few states like Virginia and California have added limitations to the practice. In Maryland, familial searches are banned completely.
Maryland actually tried to do even more to protect genetic information. In January, the state legislature introduced a bill to prohibit familial searches in CODIS. If this bill had been successful, it would have been the first ban in the country because of worries about genetic surveillance. The law did not end up passing because of the influence of law enforcement officials and a group dedicated to getting rape kits tested.
Should You Be Worried?
In today’s world, DNA test kits are common stocking stuffers at Christmastime. As the price of DNA tests continues to drop over time, more and more people will research their ancestry. When private companies let law enforcement officials access DNA profiles, it sets a dangerous precedent. It is especially worrisome because anyone can access the FamilyTreeDNA database. You do not have to be a paying customer to access and use the database. All you need is a DNA profile that you can upload.
If you have not committed a crime, you probably do not need to be worried just yet. You should be concerned though. FamilyTreeDNA allowed law enforcement to use one million DNA profiles for two years before they even told the general public. If they were willing to violate their clients’ trust for two years without worrying about it, there is no way to know what they could do next.
It is tempting to imagine a world where violent crime does not exist because of DNA, but this kind of world is unlikely. Even with DNA, mistakes and contamination can end up causing false positives. Outright fraud is another potential problem. At the University of Washington, a working paper from a group of computer scientists even shows how criminals can manipulate the police through modified or fake DNA. For all of these reasons, it is likely that DNA privacy will become an increasingly common debate in the future.