Over a million people have sent their DNA samples to private genetic companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe.com seeking answers to their most personal questions about family lineage and ethnic descent. Smithsonian Magazine writes that many people use private genetics companies as an alternative to expensive medical diagnostic tests, and just last week the Atlantic wrote about a new DNA crowdsourcing site called DNA.LAND. But as more people send DNA samples into these seemingly innocuous databanks, law enforcement has capitalized on the public’s naiveté by using private databases as an investigative tool.
Unlike the FBI’s national DNA databases which dictate when and what samples can be uploaded, private databases populated with volunteered samples are unregulated by the government and unfettered by constitutionally protected privacy provisions. While these for-profit companies claim to keep clients' personal information private, until last year Ancestry.com had a public online database that anyone could search. Their privacy policies concede they will provide information to law enforcement upon court order. Even without client names and addresses, police can search genetic databases for DNA matches and then obtain warrants for the donor’s identity. Says Fusion, “…People who submitted genetic samples for reasons of health, curiosity, or to advance science could now end up in a genetic line-up of criminal suspects.”
In 2014, Michael Usry came under suspicion for a 1996 Idaho cold murder after police ran a familial DNA search in the Ancestry.com database and found a partial match to Usry’s father. The elder Usry had donated a DNA sample to a genealogy project in Mississippi, which was later acquired by Ancestry.com. When police searched the private genealogy database in 2014, Usry’s father was excluded as a match, while his son, living in New Orleans at the time, became the prime suspect in a murder he did not commit. Michael Usry was ultimately cleared—still, his story highlights the dangers of unregulated, privately run DNA databases.
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
DNA from private databanks searched in investigations
Might people who submitted their DNA for private genetic testing wind up having their profiles run against evidence from crime scenes? According to the Legal Aid Society's latest DNA Newsletter: