DNA-Matching Company Decides To Open Its Doors To The FBI Without Bothering To Inform Its Users

from the thanks-for-the-heads-up,-tools dept

Your DNA may seem like a personal thing, but a number of companies specializing in DNA testing are ensuring it's anything but. Whether you're looking for markers identifying health risks or simply want to see who you're related to, you're giving these companies permission to create a pool of DNA samples almost anyone else can access.

Law enforcement has taken note of these developments, creating fake accounts to submit samples from crime scenes in an effort to close out cases. Whether or not we agree with law enforcement's misrepresentation, there's very little standing in the way of the government accessing your DNA sample via a third party. The thing that makes people unique becomes little more than a third party record -- only a subpoena away from being in the government's possession.

But even subpoenas aren't necessary if DNA companies decided to partner up with law enforcement by giving agencies access to their databases. That's what's happening with Family Tree, a company specializing in in-home DNA testing kits, as Salvador Hernandez reports for BuzzFeed.

Family Tree DNA, one of the largest private genetic testing companies whose home-testing kits enable people to trace their ancestry and locate relatives, is working with the FBI and allowing agents to search its vast genealogy database in an effort to solve violent crime cases, BuzzFeed News has learned.

Federal and local law enforcement have used public genealogy databases for more than two years to solve cold cases, including the landmark capture of the suspected Golden State Killer, but the cooperation with Family Tree DNA and the FBI marks the first time a private firm has agreed to voluntarily allow law enforcement access to its database.

The company says the FBI cannot freely browse its databases, but this partnership suggests its not asking the FBI to run anything past a court before running a search. The company feels the potential PR hit is worth it because it's "helping" the FBI "solve violent crimes." This is a bit discouraging. We're used to government agencies excusing incursions into people's privacy with statements about "violent crime" or "terrorism" or "the War on…" or whatever. It's disheartening when a private company does it, thinking it's somehow serving the public better by turning their DNA samples into investigation fodder.

Here's the full extent of the program so far, at least according to Family DNA:

While Family Tree does not have a contract with the FBI, the firm has agreed to test DNA samples and upload the profiles to its database on a case-by-case basis since last fall, a company spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.

This at least spares the FBI the trouble of creating fake profiles to do the same thing. Still, there's little PR or societal value in allowing a government agency to do something it was probably doing already. We see it all the time at the federal level where law enforcement/national security abuses are greeted with codification rather than criticism. Sure, we don't expect all companies to give the government the cold shoulder, but we should at least expect them to demand a bit more from the government when it starts asking for access to millions of DNA records.

There's a way to opt out of the FBI's co-opting if you're a Family Tree customer. Unfortunately, this option makes Family Tree a complete misnomer.

Officials at Family Tree said customers could decide to opt out of any familial matching, which would prevent their profiles from being searchable by the FBI. But by doing so, customers would also be unable to use one of the key features of the service: finding possible relatives through DNA testing.

If someone objects to the FBI's access, the service is useless. And this access was put into place without customers being informed ahead of time or given an option to opt out prior to the government's access. No matter how enthused Family Tree may be about being part of the FBI's posse, this is a terrible way to treat customers who expected their personal info would be given a bit more privacy.

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Filed Under: 3rd party doctrine, dna, fbi, home testing kit, privacy
Companies: family tree dna


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2019 @ 9:51am

    Re: Re: what's the downside?

    So the problem isn't with the FBI having access, it's with the way they conduct themselves?

    I hadn't thought of that angle.


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