Since its inception in the ’80s, DNA forensic tests have always played an essential part in aiding criminal investigations and law enforcement. You may think DNA evidence is all just CSI TV show mumbo-jumbo, but it is definitely being used extensively in real-life cases.
From the convictions to exonerations, DNA evidence has allowed investigators to identify suspects and victims by linking reference samples gathered on a crime scene.
However, with the booming popularity of do-it-yourself home DNA kits, genetic testing is now a mainstream affair, giving regular consumers the ability to gather their own samples.
But with this convenience, are we unwittingly giving these DNA testing companies vast control over our genetic identities? And if law enforcement freely dips its hand on these massive personal DNA databases, should we be concerned?
FBI access to a DNA database – what could go wrong?
One of the biggest DNA testing companies, FamilyTreeDNA, has entered into an agreement with the FBI to give federal agents access to its genealogy database to help solve violent crimes that have gone cold.
As first reported by Buzzfeed, although federal and local law enforcement have already been tapping public genealogy databases to help solve cold cases for more than two years now, this is actually the first time a private company has voluntarily agreed to allow a law enforcement agency to tap its database.
Although FamilyTree doesn’t have a contract with the FBI, the company has already agreed to test DNA samples and upload the profiles to its database on an individual basis since last fall.
Then in December 2018, the company updated its terms of service to allow law enforcement to use its database to identify suspects for “violent crimes” like homicide or sexual assault and to identify a victim’s remains.
How large is this database? It reportedly has the DNA profiles of over a million customers. The FBI hopes that allowing them access to this massive database will help them “solve violent crimes faster than ever.”
Note: In last year’s Golden State Killer investigation, FamilyTreeDNA was subpoenaed to provide the information of an individual who was a suspect’s genetic match. To date, the company has cooperated with the FBI in fewer than 10 cases.
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Privacy concerns, naturally
While the agreement still doesn’t allow FBI agents to freely access the database’s genetic profile (they can’t access more information than what a regular FamilyTreeDNA user can), the partnership still raises questions about privacy.
For example, by uploading a DNA sample to the genealogy database, detectives can trace even the distant relatives of suspected serial killers and rapists. This means that the FBI is not only getting access to the millions who have FamilyTreeDNA profiles, its agents can also see their potential relatives.
This unprecedented partnership of a government agency and a private DNA testing company might also turn into a privacy nightmare as DNA testing kits have become extremely popular.
FamilyTreeDNA says there’s nothing to worry about
In a statement, FamilyTreeDNA clarified that this agreement will only give the FBI the same access as any regular FamilyTreeDNA user. To obtain additional information, agents are still required to provide a subpoena or a search warrant.
“We came to the conclusion that if law enforcement created accounts, with the same level of access to the database as the standard FamilyTreeDNA user, they would not be violating user privacy and confidentiality,” FamilyTreeDNA’s founder and CEO Bennett Greenspan told Buzzfeed.
The company also said that customers will always have the ability to opt out of family matching. Opting opt means their profiles will be unsearchable by the FBI but on the flip side, they will lose out on one of the service’s key perks: finding potential relatives via DNA tests.
It still remains to be seen if other DNA testing companies like 23andMe, LivingDNA and AncestryDNA will follow suit but it’s a good reminder that genealogical and DNA services could potentially expose not just your identity but your relatives, as well.
What do you think? Is this partnership a boon to law enforcement or is it an invasion of privacy? Drop us a comment!