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Security & privacy

New privacy concerns over home DNA tests

A couple of months ago, we told you about the secret agreement between home DNA testing company FamilyTree DNA and the FBI to give federal agents access to its DNA genealogy database to help solve violent crimes.

The company even updated its terms of service to allow law enforcement to use its database to identify suspects for “violent crimes” like homicide or sexual assault or to identify a victim’s remains.

As home DNA testing kits have become extremely popular, this unprecedented partnership between a government agency and a private DNA testing company is naturally raising privacy concerns.

But now, unfazed by the backlash caused by the unprecedented agreement, FamilyTree DNA has begun running an ad campaign to explicitly encourage people to upload their DNA profiles to their website to help solve crimes.

Family Tree DNA and Ed Smart wants your help

The biggest draw of DNA testing kits is the discovery of your ancestral heritage which could reveal not just your ancient genealogy, but your distant relatives, as well.

But the latest pitch from FamilyTree DNA is adding a new twist — Please give us your DNA profiles and help solve violent crimes.

The new ad campaign stars Ed Smart, whose daughter Elizabeth was kidnapped at age 14 and was eventually rescued nine months later on March 2003.

“When the loved one is a victim of a violent crime, families want answers. T

here is more DNA available at crime scenes than any other evidence. If you’re one of the millions of people that have taken a DNA test, your help can provide the missing link,” implores Smart in the ad.

The ad will start airing in San Diego, California (where law enforcement recently solved a 50-year-old murder case after using a publicly available DNA database) and it will expand to more cities this spring.

DNA databases are double-edged swords

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 DNA testing company has voluntarily agreed to allow a law enforcement agency to tap its database.

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 which led to his arrest.

While the agreement still doesn’t allow FBI agents to freely access the Family Tree DNA database’s genetic profiles (they can’t access more information than what a regular FamilyTreeDNA user can), the partnership naturally raises questions about privacy.

It’s a double-edged sword as although access to a massive DNA database may help identify suspects via DNA evidence, for the average consumer, it can reveal more than what they bargained for.

As we mentioned earlier, by uploading a DNA sample to FamilyTreeDNA’s 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 DNA profiles uploaded to FamilyTree DNA’s database, its agents can also see their potential relatives, too.

The company also said that customers will always have the ability to opt out of family matching. Opting out 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.

How large is FamilyTree DNA’s database at this time? It reportedly has the DNA profiles of over a million customers. With this new campaign, the company is hoping to expand its database by encouraging even the customers of other competing companies, like 23andMe or AncestryDNA, to voluntarily upload their DNA profiles and help solve crimes.

But what does the public think about this?

While FamilyTree DNA’s agreement with the FBI may be raising some eyebrows, polls suggest that majority of people don’t have issues about the use of genetic genealogy and consumer DNA databases to help solve violent crimes.

Last October, a poll conducted by bioethicists at Baylor College of Medicine revealed that of the 1,587 respondents, 91% supported forensic genealogy for violent crimes.

Another poll by Maurice Gleeson conducted last year also showed that of the 639 genealogists who participated, 85% were “reasonably comfortable” with law enforcement using DNA matching to identify serial rapists and killers.

With these numbers, it’s no wonder FamilyTree DNA appears to be confident that its new campaign of encouraging the public to share their DNA profiles in the name of solving violent crimes will be a success.

Bonus podcast: How is DNA analysis used to solve notorious criminal cases? Tap or click below to listen to find out in this free Komando on Demand podcast! App background

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