Private genetic databases are facing new privacy problems, but this time, they’re coming from law enforcement. In what can be best described as ‘straight out of a detective movie’, private investigators are using genealogy websites for murder cases.
A Breach in Consumer Privacy?
Detectives and private investigators are using genealogy websites like 23andMe and Ancestry.com to run familial DNA search. This method cross-references the genetic database made by the law enforcement, with private genetic database put together by the aforementioned databases that are publicly searchable as part of their investigations for murder cases.
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In one case, officers were able to get a warrant for Michael Usry’s cheek cells after a familial DNA search of his father’s cells had a near identical match with a killer, with “34 of 24 alleles” in common.
Usry’s painful and embarrassing case is a painful reminder how seemingly private databases can be used by the law enforcement. While there is no denying how important these are as avenues that will help bring a criminal to justice, the technology isn’t as refined and accurate as depicted in many crime and investigation shows and movies.
It is important to know that both 23andMe and Ancestory.com allows law enforcement to gather data if they receive a court order, but this is still a controversial gray area that many people are understandably still uncomfortable with. The supposed breach of privacy, coupled with the limitations of and potential errors in cross-referencing genetics, further complicates the case.
A Serious Issue
The main issue isn’t exactly on how law enforcement seemingly has access to almost everyone’s private genetic database. The issue actually stems from the overall lack of transparency regarding how law enforcement collects familial DNA. Just like Usry, not many people are willing to have their cheeks swabbed just because their alleles match a killer’s. Additionally, there’s still a question if private investigators and law enforcement get to keep a person’s DNA on file.
Many people submit their genetic information to these websites in order to reach out to distant relatives or find out health history, or in more altruistic cases, to advance science. Currently, the law enforcement’s use of these private information as part of their investigations is still a difficult issue to tread on simply due to the possible ramifications due to errors or misuse of information.
Erin Murphy, an NYU Law Professor, explains, “If you’re a cop trying to solve a crime, and you have DNA at your disposal, you’re going to want to use it to further your investigation.”
“But the fact that your [sic] signing up for 23andMe or Ancestry.com means that you and all of your current and future family members could become genetic criminal suspects is not something most users probably have in mind when trying to find out where their ancestors came from.”