Familial DNA Searches May Make You Think Twice About Signing Up With Private Genetic Services

from the running-in-family dept

Using DNA found at the scene of a crime to identify the guilty party is pretty routine these days, but, as Mike discussed many years ago, police have been getting more aggressive in going much further: carrying out “familial” DNA searches on privately-held genetic databases. That link is to a recent Wired article that concerns the case of Michael Usry, who became a suspect in a 1966 1996 murder case because of his father’s DNA:

Detectives had focused on Usry after running a familial DNA search, a technique that allows investigators to identify suspects who don’t have DNA in a law enforcement database but whose close relatives have had their genetic profiles cataloged. In Usry’s case the crime scene DNA bore numerous similarities to that of Usry’s father, who years earlier had donated a DNA sample to a genealogy project through his Mormon church in Mississippi. That project’s database was later purchased by Ancestry, which made it publicly searchable — a decision that didn’t take into account the possibility that cops might someday use it to hunt for genetic leads.

Using general similarities as the yardstick rather than more exact matches means that false positives are more likely — as in this case, when Usry’s own DNA proved he had nothing to do with the murder. Those similarities were only found because his father’s DNA was in a privately-held genetic database that the police could access. That’s unusual, but becoming more common as services like Ancestry.com and 23andMe gather many more DNA samples.

According to an article on Fusion.net, Ancestry now has over 800,000 samples, while 23andMe has a million customers (Ancestry says that a more up-to-date figure is 1.2 million members in its database). Those are significant holdings, and it’s only natural that the police would try to use them to solve crimes; both companies confirm that they will turn over information from their databases to law enforcement agencies if served with a suitable court order. A more recent post on Fusion.net notes that 23andMe has produced its first transparency report (direct link, but Techdirt readers outside the US may have to use the Google cache version for reasons that are not clear.) The report shows that a total of four requests were received from the US authorities, concerning five 23andMe customers, and indicates that the company was successful in denying those requests, without giving details.

Although understandable, this kind of access is problematic for people who sign up for these services, for reasons made clear by the Usry case. The DNA that goes into the database affects not only the donor, if a rough match to crime materials is found by the police, but many close relatives whose genetic make-up is necessarily similar. As a result, it’s entirely possible that completely innocent people might have to go through the traumatic experience of being a suspect just as Usry did before more precise tests ruled him out.

That’s unfortunate, because it adds a complicating factor to the decision about whether to provide DNA to interesting and innovative services like Ancestry.com and 23andMe: doing so means future generations might be put at risk of erroneous police interest. The only way to prove their innocence would be to hand over their DNA to the authorities for detailed testing, which then raises the question of what happens to it afterwards.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Companies: 23andme, ancestry.com

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Comments on “Familial DNA Searches May Make You Think Twice About Signing Up With Private Genetic Services”

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26 Comments
Rich Kulawiecsays:

That was then; this is now

Those are significant holdings, and it’s only natural that the police would try to use them to solve crimes; both companies confirm that they will turn over information from their databases to law enforcement agencies if served with a suitable court order.

It’s only a matter of time until these companies are compelled to turn over ALL data and to remain silent about doing so. Whether that’s done via NSL or by quietly backdooring them, it will happen. Their repositories are too rich and too tempting to be left untapped. So…their assurances mean nothing. Their public statements mean nothing. Their transparency reports mean nothing.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re: That was then; this is now

Actually the cops have been doing one better for well over a decade now. They show up at gradeschools, and under the guises of a program to ‘help locate lost, missing, or abducted children’ proceed to scare the Parents into voluntarily giving up DNA in the form of mouth swabs.
These then get analyzed and filed into a database, which the Cops can then search at will, without warrant or oversight, forever.
Many people don’t even realize the Cops already HAVE their DNA on file, because it happened so long ago… if they do have memories of the ‘Safety Presentation’ it rarely occurs to them what actually happened.

annonymousesays:

Yes your honour the match has a certainty of one in a million.
Would the prosecution please present the other matches then?
What other matches?
Well for one the tristate area population is 380 million and I at least did not fail grade school math.
….
Some time latter.
….
Judge Judy finds local prosecutors guilty of all crimes due to overwhelming DNA evidence.

Roger Strongsays:

Various strains of lab mice have been bred for various conditions: There are strains bred to be more prone to alcoholism, cancer, obesity, diabetes, etc.

Look for those same traits in genetic databases – with familial DNA covering those not in the databases – and you’ve got a valuable target marketing tool.

Ancestry databases may resist police demands, but I doubt they’ll resist the money.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re:

…Ancestry databases may resist police demands, but I doubt they’ll resist the money…

That hasn’t stopped cities, counties, and states from offering for sale their databases. I bought a car in the 1980s and the state misspelled my legal name on the title. Several months later I started getting junk mail with my misspelled legal name. Don’t think for one minute a police department won’t offer to buy a database, even if they go through another department to disguise the end user.

Anonymous Anonymous Cowardsays:

Confused Lawyer Syndrome

DNA should be illegal, everybody get rid of yours, or your families.

Wait, what I meant was DNA databases should fall under HIPPA rules, and not be sellable, or accesible by anyone who is not currently providing medical care to a person. Um not that anyone would provide medical care to a non-person. NO I am NOT denigrating your pet. How could you share DNA with your pet??? You did WHAT?

John Fendersonsays:

Re: Re: Confused Lawyer Syndrome

I agree, it should be regulated under HIPAA rules, but remember the huge loophole with HIPAA: it only applies to certain health care professionals, insurance companies, and certain health care data clearinghouses.

For example, if I were to obtain sensitive medical data about you, I can legally ignore HIPAA rules completely since I am not a health care professional. The only rule I’d have to comply with is to not do any work with or for an entity that is covered under HIPAA.

John Fendersonsays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Confused Lawyer Syndrome

“would this apply to employers”

Unless your employer is in a covered business or is acting as an agent for the business (for example, acting as an agent for an insurance company), then no, employers do not have to adhere to HIPAA.

Here’s a more complete summary of who HIPAA applies to: http://www.hrsa.gov/healthit/toolbox/HIVAIDSCaretoolbox/SecurityAndPrivacyIssues/whoisreq2comply.html

New Mexico Marksays:

Unreasonable weighting of evidence

“it’s entirely possible that completely innocent people might have to go through the traumatic experience of being a suspect just as Usry did before more precise tests ruled him out.”

Really? I imagine this “suspect” could have easily proved he was nowhere near the crime scene at the time the crime was committed. However, in this age evidence like that is completely ignored in the light of sexier evidence like DNA.

I realize that DNA can be very strong evidence, but only when many criteria are met. Again and again, people have been falsely convicted primarily on DNA evidence, and only years later does it come to light that there were problems with how evidence was collected, stored, analyzed, or presented in court.

Rekrulsays:

The only way to prove their innocence would be to hand over their DNA to the authorities for detailed testing, which then raises the question of what happens to it afterwards.

It most likely stays in the law enforcement database for all eternity, just in case you ever happen to commit a crime in the future.

All the concern over police searching private DNA databases is misplaced in my opinion. Give it another 10-20 years and doctors will be required to collect a DNA sample at birth, which will then go into a national (or possibly international) database. I’m actually surprised this hasn’t been done before now. Actually, I’m surprised that the government has yet required States to collect people’s fingerprints when they get a driver’s license.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re:

DNA collection will be an ever-expanding exercise.

However, “DNA Collection” isn’t what it sounds like; what is usually being collected is specific marker patterns, NOT a complete genome. As such, the data is of limited use beyond acting as a filter (which appears to be how it was used in this case).

But what’s REALLY interesting is that about the time you’d think that it would become a requirement (10-20 years), gene therapy will have matured to the point where a collected sample from one year might not even match the marker patterns from the same person, a few years later.

This is going to make the entire database pretty useless, as well as screw up future generation’s genetic anthropology efforts, unless people log all changes to their genome for posterity.

Vladilyichsays:

Re: Re: DNA

They already are. There has been a real hullabaloo in Minnesota for about 5 years now over this single issue. The state requires that all infants get a PKU test (blood test from the heel) at birth. The state has been storing these, WITHOUT parental consent for close to a decade and refuses to destroy them. They have also been caught sending copies of their database directly to the FBI. All children born in that state since the turn of the century are on record with “law enforcement” and will remain there for life.

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