Here’s yet another report from the world where law enforcement and genetics intersect that already has privacy advocates up in arms. The New York Post reports that Family Tree DNA, among the largest, private home-testing companies in the country, has been quietly working with the FBI. They’ve been examining the signature of DNA samples from crime scenes and attempting to match them up with people who use their service or close relatives.
First reported by BuzzFeed News, Family Tree DNA admitted that it’s been working investigators to test DNA samples and potentially match them with suspects or their relatives. Needless to say, this isn’t sitting well with privacy advocates.
It’s no secret that authorities are actively using publicly available DNA databases to solve crimes, some of which have long gone cold. However, in past cases, the genetic information was obtained from publicly available archives where individuals uploaded their data knowingly.
In this case, Family Tree DNA presents itself as a private genealogy database where customers can have their DNA results compared to countless others in the search for lost relatives and to help fill out their family tree. Their work with the FBI had not been disclosed to any of their customers and over a million DNA records are already accessible via the family matching feature.
The privacy concerns being raised here seem a bit on the weak side. We’re not talking about patient medical records, such as the ones your doctor keeps. Family Tree has the genetic profile of people who voluntarily agreed to spit in a tube, mail it in to them and have their results compared to a massive database of other users. In fact, they paid to have it done. Unless there is some stipulation in the user agreement about keeping the results private, I don’t see where the company is facing any legal issues here.
Of course, if enough people are unhappy about this, Family Tree may pay a hefty price due to people voting with their wallets. But that’s just the free market at work so there’s nothing wrong with that.
But should people really be upset? The FBI isn’t going on some sort of fishing expedition and confiscating the company’s entire DNA catalog. They have genetic evidence from a particular crime scene (or multiple crime scenes) and they’re looking for a match. The only people who need to be worried are the actual criminals or family members who don’t want their relatives being caught.
For Pete’s sake, people this is how they caught the Golden State Killer. The police were totally stumped on that one. Are you seriously arguing that it would be better for that guy to still be roaming the countryside just so law enforcement could be prevented from accessing his relatives’ profiles?