Is Someone Searching for Your DNA Online?

Category: Privacy

You might not think your relative’s genealogy hobby could bring you an hours-long interrogation by the FBI and a search warrant for your DNA. But that’s what happened to one film maker, and with the growing popularity of online DNA testing services, the odds of it happening to anyone are growing. Here's what you need to know, especially if you've submitted a DNA sample to Ancestry or 23andMe...

Dangers of DNA Testing

It’s no secret that federal, state, and local governments share DNA profiles gathered at crime scenes. The DNA of convicted offenders also goes into the CODIS (Combined DNA Index System). The federal government and 28 States have enacted laws permitting the collection of DNA from people who have merely been arrested or charged with crimes; yes, even the “innocent until proven guilty" persons must give up their DNA.

Some local law enforcement agencies have set up “sobriety checkpoints” where every vehicle is stopped and its occupants are pressured to “voluntarily” provide DNA samples by intimidating, uniformed officers. In Windsor, Ontario, police went door to door “requesting” the DNA of everyone in a neighborhood in search of the murderer of a pregnant woman.

But law enforcement can’t collect everyone’s DNA; at least, not as fast as it would like. So now, police are turning to private-sector databases of DNA profiles collected for medical, genealogical, and other purposes that have nothing to do with crime.

Online DNA search

Ancestry.com, perhaps the largest genealogical research resource available to the public, owns a DNA database purchased from an LDS Church genealogy project years ago. Incredibly, Ancestry.com made this sensitive data public and searchable! For law enforcement, it was the genetic equivalent of dumb criminals’ self-incriminating public Facebook posts. All they had to do was search Ancestry.com’s free database for a match with crime scene DNA, then get a warrant for the Ancestry.com user’s identity.

What is Familial Searching?

“Familial searching” goes a long step further. It’s based on the premise that one’s relatives have DNA similar to yours. So if a direct search doesn’t turn up a match strong enough to serve as probable cause for a warrant, police may look for partial matches that indicate a relative of the unknown DNA sample. Such a familial match may serve to obtain a warrant for the potential relative’s identity. Then the police go looking for that person’s relatives.

That is exactly what happened to Michael Usry. Years ago, his father donated DNA to that LDS genealogy project, never dreaming it would end up in a commercial, public database searched by the Idaho Falls police. The senior Usry’s DNA profile was an “excellent match” to DNA found at a 1996 murder scene, though still dissimilar enough to rule him out as a suspect. But that was enough for a warrant to obtain Dad’s identity, and the police started going through his family.

What they found is that Michael Usry had “ties” to the Idaho Falls crime scene; two of his sisters attended university 25 miles from it. He’d been on a ski trip near Idaho Falls when he was 19. Oh, and he had Facebook friends in Idaho, too. Also, Michael Usry’s films often feature violence, indicating a “depravity of mind” according to police. This thin soup, and the fuzzy science of familial DNA searching, convinced a judge to issue a search warrant for Michael’s DNA, which was executed by FBI agents in Usry’s current home town of New Orleans. Usry sweated for 33 days before the DNA test results cleared him.

DNA testing is becoming more popular and less expensive. It’s a very useful tool for identifying potential medical problems before they actually arise. But if DNA databases become fishing holes for law enforcement, people may well shy away from getting tested.

Familial searches of DNA yield a high percentage of false positives, generating numerous fruitless leads in a criminal investigation. In the UK, which has employed familial DNA searches for over 10 years, a 2014 study found that just 17 percent of familial DNA searches “resulted in the identification of a relative of the true offender.” The damage done to the reputation of someone who merely falls under suspicion of a crime may outweigh the utility of unreliable familial DNA searching. Had Michael Usry been a schoolteacher, rumors that he was being investigated for a girl’s murder might have ended his career unjustly.

On the flipside, police in California were able to find and arrest the "Golden State Killer" Joseph DeAngelo, 40 years after his string of murders, rapes and burglaries. They used publicly available DNA information from GEDmatch, to identify a distant relative of the suspect. GEDmatch stores DNA information voluntarily uploaded by people who use DNA testing kits provided 23andMe or Ancestry, to search for family members.

Can Anyone Do a DNA Search?

There is no federal law regulating familial DNA searching. Maryland and Washington D.C. explicitly prohibit it, while the practice is regulated by laws in California, Colorado, Virginia, and Texas. Police have free rein in all other States. The Idaho Falls police searched Usry Sr.’s family tree for five generations, even though the FBI says familial searching is useful only for identifying suspects among parents or siblings.

Ancestry.com suspended public access to its DNA database in the wake of the Usry case. However, that does not prevent law enforcement from seeking a search warrant to look through that database for a specific DNA profile, if they can cite probable cause to believe that a useful match is in Ancestry.com’s database. As long as the data exists, it is vulnerable to court orders. Ancestry.com tells users in its terms of service that it will provide their data to law enforcement in response to search warrants or court orders. However, the company is silent on how many warrants, orders, or informal requests it has received, and how many have been fulfilled. They do state that the company "will not share your genetic data with employers, insurance providers or third party marketers without first getting your consent."

23AndMe.com, another DNA testing firm that tests for genetic indicators of medical problems, issues a quarterly transparency report. It shows that the company has received only six requests from law enforcement agencies for its data, and that no request has been granted in whole or in part.

However, that doesn't mean that DNA testing companies aren't *selling* the data they collect. Both Ancestry and 23andMe do sell (or have sold) your data to drugmakers and other interested parties. In 2018, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline paid $300 million for a four-year deal to use 23andMe's genetic data to help them develop new drugs. Ancestry partnered with Google's Calico subsidiary from 2015 to 2018, to study aging and longevity.

The genetic data is anonymized, of course, before sharing. But leaks, mistakes and data breaches can happen. And despite the best efforts to remove personally identifying information from DNA samples, researchers at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research have proved that anonymizing this data is not foolproof. They were able to determine the identities of 50 people who anonymously donated DNA donated for scientific studies.

Have you had your DNA tested? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

 
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This article was posted by on 23 Jul 2019


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Most recent comments on "Is Someone Searching for Your DNA Online?"

Posted by:

clyde
23 Jul 2019

simply do not give it out


Posted by:

Tim
23 Jul 2019

Very enlightening. I was going to have mine tested so I could determine my origins through 23 and me, but now I think I'll skip it.
The US seems to be moving ever closer to a police state. It's disconcerting at the very least.


Posted by:

Sarah
23 Jul 2019

Yes, I received a testing kit from my brother for a birthday gift. The both good and bad news is that the company doing the research was so bad at their job, no Gov. Agency would be apt to contact them for help. I know of relatives of at least seven different nationalities, yet my analysis stated that I was 98% English... Not ONE relative of mine came from England. Ireland, Native American, Scotland, even Wales, but not one from England.


Posted by:

Marcia
23 Jul 2019

I had mine tested through Ancestry.com. I'm not sure how I feel, I don't have anything to hide, and it does have it's uses, but now I kind of wish I hadn't done it. It didn't really tell me anything I didn't know already.


Posted by:

D. H. Leacock
23 Jul 2019

If the complete "dumbing down" of the Populous of the United States is not evident by the total invasion of our privacy, then we are lost already.
With every request for, any release, of ANY citizens DNA related information, That citizen, by law' must approve of this 'request' along with the who and why that the "request" is needed. Period.


Posted by:

Bart
23 Jul 2019

It's estimated that over half the caucasian population of the US can already be found using the ancestry and other genetic databases by applying sophisticated knowledge of genealogy. So, most of us are subject to search without consent. As usual, the law needs to catch up to technology.


Posted by:

Roger
23 Jul 2019

Cat is out of the bag, so to speak. Sales will continue to multiply and in a few years millions of samples of DNA will be in the DNA banks.
Could contact your legislator to draft a bill about familial searching by FBI and such but if they want the DNA they will get the DNA with a warrant from a 'well-meaning' judge. Best to relax and do your family searching.


Posted by:

jim
23 Jul 2019

Since my son and my daughter are very interested in geneology and they can't trace my side of the family since I was an at-birth adoption, they went to Ancestry.com and did their test. According to Ancestry.com, my son doesn't have DNA. Since we thought that maybe he had obtained the sample incorrectly, so I did it for him (being a retired RN). Results? They could find no DNA in the sample. So much for ANCESTRY.com.


Posted by:

SharonH
23 Jul 2019

My brother, wife and daughter had theirs done through 23 and Me. It was interesting. I'll eventually do mine. If people want to find out anything about me, there are still plenty of ways for them to do it. We are reaching the point where various entities will be able to obtain the information they want, regardless of what we do.


Posted by:

David
23 Jul 2019

The first thing that came to mind when that stuff came out was that the government was trying to get DNA on everyone in the country. As an old guy, I've become very suspicious of everything that comes along. I also don't take the "free" tests on face book and other places because I'm always wondering what they are really after.


Posted by:

Butch
23 Jul 2019

'Populous of the United States" should read as "Populace...."


Posted by:

Clare
23 Jul 2019

My dad was born to an unwed 17 yr old girl. He was adopted by an aunt Seventy years later,I tried to determine the identity of his father. My father's cousin told me that dad's mother had been seen strolling by the river with the 30 yr old son of a prominent nearby family. I uploaded my ancestry DNA test results to GEDMATCH and a 1st and 2nd cousin were found. It confirmed the paternity. I tracked down the children of the man in question, and found that dad had strong physical similarities with 2 of them. I arranged a meet-up and they "clicked' instantly, and became very good friends, meeting up frequently. It was very gratifying for my father.Well worth doing.


Posted by:

Joseph
23 Jul 2019

I took the DNA test with My Heritage since I was adopted..Yes. I know who my birth mother was and not the dad..Met four of my biological aunts and uncle..My birth mother has long since been deceased along with her parents..Have/had no intentions of posting this data and didn't do it..It has confirmed as to where my ancestry has possible originated..This much has already been known to me..


Posted by:

Bob K.
23 Jul 2019

Thank you, Bob, for this invaluable information.
I try to stay away from anything that is "in vogue." Hence I don't do Facebook, and I don't shop on Amazon, and now for sure, I will not have my DNA tested.


Posted by:

William
23 Jul 2019

DNA evidence is way more unreliable than you ever imagined. This podcast will tell you much more:

https://www.economist.com/podcasts/2019/07/17/unreliable-evidence-a-forensic-look-at-identification


Posted by:

Groman
24 Jul 2019

DNA may be a tool for whoever and whatever. That being said I do not believe the TV commercials that they claim to find where your ancestry is from almost down to the village. The world is too intermingled for that. As far back sas the Roman times people from all over the known world were in Rome and mixed. Especially the American population is so. Maybe they can find a brother or sister or cousin or so but I do not and will not believe otherwise. I do believe the ads raise a lot of revenue for Ancestry.com from curious people who want to believe they maybe a heir to royalty.

I'm not giving up nothing for free and much less pay someone if I can help it.

Oh did I mention the article was also about mistaken idenity because of DNA.


Posted by:

Mike
24 Jul 2019

I just used a fake name and unique email.


Posted by:

RandiO
24 Jul 2019

Original EULA of 23andMe had terrified me when I read it!
Birth Certificate (Federal/States/Local)
Fingerprint (Federal/States/Local)
Driver License Photo (Federal/States)
Medical Records
Vehicle Registrations, insurances, investments
Financial records (IRS/Experian/Banks/Visa, et al)
Passport (Federal)
Work/Professional History
Web-posted Resumes (LinkedIn/Monster, etc)
Real-ID (Federal/State)
Surveillance Capitalists (google/amazon, et al) meta-data
*Individual DNA records (Federal/States/Local/Ancestry.com, et al)
*Facial recognition (digital photos/surveillance cameras)
*Social/Website accounts (Facebook/Twitter/gMail, et al)
We have all managed somehow to allow our most personally identifying private information/data to become commodities, as if they were just some items on some shelf at some Walmart store.
Reasons for all of us allowing rampant abuse of such critical data maybe of ignorance, apathy, carelessness, etc. However, I am inclined to think that none of us could have foretold what such a cache of data can be worth or how it can be used but mostly abused.
The one that has always upset me the most is the unwritten law that everyone must have a verifiable “Physical Address” to be considered an American citizen.
*With the exception of the bottom 3 listed data types, all other listed items require proof of a “Physical Address” by federal law.
Privacy is indeed a Red Herring!


Posted by:

Granville Alley
07 Aug 2019

First, if in fact they are getting a 17% useful correlation of Familial DNA then this is undoubtedly much, much higher than the normal correlative of other investigatory techniques so to say only 17% is very misleading. Second, many other investigatory techniques, processes, etc. are far more intrusive and far more damaging to a person's reputation than a DNA Test that if you were uninvolved in a crime will likely conclusively clear you.

Like all evidence, including and particularly "eye witness" testimony and observations DNA evidence is subject to error in processing, but it is statistically much less prone to error than many other kinds of forensic or direct evidence.

Finally, I am much more concerned with the number of "Federal Crimes" that every person in the USA is subject to prosecution for, the selective prosecution of such "Criminal Acts" and the abuse of such prosecutions for Political Reasons than I am concerned about DNA Databases catching me up in a crime I did not commit or subjecting me to unwarranted investigation. Just my 2 Cents


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