Genetics Firm Gives Law Enforcement Run Of Profiles Without User Permission6 months, 2 weeks ago
Posted on Feb 02, 2019, 4 p.m.
Family Tree DNA has given USA law enforcement open access to its database for over 1 million users without their permission or knowledge, with hopes of it helping to solve crimes; implications for genetic privacy are dire.
There is at least one company working with law enforcement as Family Tree DNA has admitted in a statement that it has been testing samples for the FBI, and uploaded profiles to its database on a case by case basis since last fall. This is a new development that users were never consulted about which started with one case and morphed into what it is now according to a spokesperson.
So far Family Tree DNA claims to have only cooperated on 10 cases with law enforcement, and they appear to be proud of the relationship, boasting founder Bennett Greenspan “inadvertently created a platform that would help law enforcement agencies solve crimes faster than ever”.
Without asking or announcing to users Family Tree DNA quietly changed terms of services to allow law enforcement to use the database in identifying suspects of violent crimes and remains of victims. Majority of the million+ users had already submitted their profiles before the change and neither they nor their family members, which are also searchable through the database, were informed or asked for their consent regarding the changes that affect their genetic privacy.
Genealogy investigation has gained much popularity and is championed as the next frontier in detective work since a DNA match on public genealogy database GEDMatch led to identification of Joseph DeAngelo aka the Golden State Killer. Privacy advocates are concerned use of these databases without consent sets an alarming precedent, especially as more people are uploading their profiles.
Family Tree DNA executives claim the FBI has the same level of access as a normal user, if agents require additional information they must provide a search warrant or subpoena, such as they did in 2017 for “limited” information on a profile related to the Golden State Killer, although the account was not linked to the criminal.
Before the relationship with Family Tree DNA the FBI was limited to public databases only in which users uploaded profiles well knowing they would be searchable by anyone. Unhappy users about the change can make their profiles private, but that would defeat the purpose of using DNA databases to find distant relatives, as by restricting their profile it would render them unsearchable.
According to Maurice Gleeson a survey suggests 85% of respondents were fine with their DNA being used to catch a violent criminal. The FBI genealogy unit is traveling the nation to instruct local law enforcement how to use the new tools, as this happens the likelihood will increase of such tools being used for casual surveillance or corrupt purposes.
According to law professor Natalie Ram the real victims here are the relatives of users who have uploaded their profiles into such databases, these relatives never asked to be in the system in the first place and their relationships are now in the hands of the national security state. We can’t choose our genetic relatives, and we can’t sever that genetic relation, there’s nothing voluntary about that information being shared; we are nearing a de-facto national DNA database.
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