Who is Searching Your DNA Online?

Category: Genealogy , Search-Engines

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 film maker Michael Usry, and the odds of it happening to anyone are growing. Here's what you need to know...

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 a Mormon 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. His father, years ago, donated DNA to that Mormon 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.

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.

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

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

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Most recent comments on "Who is Searching Your DNA Online?"

(See all 22 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Chopin Cusachs
27 Oct 2015

Just sent sample to Ancestry. I'm curious as to whether I have Neanderthal ancestors.

Posted by:

27 Oct 2015

It was the DNA that CLEARED him! This should be comforting rather than scary. The DNA testing done for genealogy research is different than the kind done for crime scene investigation and not very useful to law enforcement.

Posted by:

clyde e reed
27 Oct 2015

Hi Bob,

I don't care as I know the GOV has my DNA as am a 100% disabled VET been in there hospitals many time and know they get it from all in the military

Posted by:

Rhonda Lea Kirk Fries
27 Oct 2015

Personal Genome Project/23andMe participant here.

I released my data (full genome) within minutes of notification that sequencing was complete.

Prior to that, I released my 23andMe data to openSNP and to the PGP.

No regrets, no second thoughts, even with the scare stories.

The answer is more testing and more disclosure. The faster our population grows, the sooner we will have reasonable laws to protect our genetic data in accordance with the Constitution. If people stop testing, we lose strength of numbers and all other benefits derived from knowing our genetic makeup.

Posted by:

Robert Kemper
27 Oct 2015

This action doesn't surprise me, the way things have been going in our hard to recognize nation

Posted by:

27 Oct 2015

I've had my DNA tested. Not concerned. If someone finds a y-DNA match, we are related - may be wayyyy back when.

Posted by:

Renee Greene
27 Oct 2015

As a reclusive genealogist, this question was a MAJOR concern to me. There are a few things that might help you decide the risks. 1. WHICH lab / genealogy company you use makes a big difference re: privacy issues. Ancestry.com is/was the most lax and many have had their data permanently removed; 23andme.com and FTDNA (FamilyTreeDNA) are, and always have been, sticklers for privacy. 2. YOU decide who views your data by opting "in" (or out) with most choosing only those who match with with them. 3. There is no rule/law that prohibits you from using a false name; any other personal data (opt for WHO can view) is only required if you use a credit card or check. Get creative to mask your identity.

Probably the most important: your DNA results will show you a LOT of those who match with you; however, VERY few (most likely none) are close enough (parents, siblings and perhaps first cousins) to be of any interest / help to authorities. 23andme only had 4 requests and none of the donor's information was released. Why? The only matches were not close enough as most are 2nd - 5th cousins, etc.

One question should be: Is it really that efficient to use non law enforcement DNA databases as a forensic tool? Statistics favor a "no" response; however, in extremely important cases... it's worth a shot.

DNA results / private databases, etc. MUST be addressed (and carefully) to implement laws concerning privacy.

Posted by:

27 Oct 2015

People seem to be missing the point here. Such DNA searches as are being done by police are highly unlikely to lead them to a perpetrator. I see comments highlighting the fact that the DNA cleared Usry of any guilt, but they ignore the fact that there was no need for him to be cleared until police went after him because of the DNA search itself. Far from being a useful tool in the apprehension of criminals, it simply offers 'red herrings' leading police to spend their time chasing after innocents instead of using real forensic science to track down the guilty party. I find this to quite disconcerting.

Posted by:

27 Oct 2015

It's a slippery slope for sure but I have to side with human rights!! I don't believe law enforcement should be allowed to throw a wrench into someone's life on a "thin" hunch. Yes the results cleared him but at what cost? His sanity? His business connections? His partner's trust?

Posted by:

Monte Herridge
28 Oct 2015

I dislike the trend toward invasion of privacy by law enforcement. They seem to think fishing expeditions are allowable. I don't see any reason to have my privacy violated. I am retired, and don't use the online DNA banks.

Posted by:

28 Oct 2015

While DNA could help convict and I'm all for that, especially in rape and murder cases, it looks to me that instead of using it as the "final nail in the coffin" in a case, there is some laziness in trying to use technology as a shortcut. This process will inevitably lead to ruined lives due to false suspicion being put on people as seen in the Usry case.

Posted by:

28 Oct 2015

Anyone having served in the military since DNA started has. After all we were a captive audience regardless of the excuses.

Posted by:

28 Oct 2015

I think it is time that the USA pass sweeping privacy regulations regarding DNA and information on the Internet. Mr. Usry shouldn't have even been in a position where he had to rely on his DNA to prove he was innocent. What is protecting someone from false lab results that result in them being convicted based on tainted DNA? Is there a way to find out if a family member from the past shared DNA with Ancestry.com and other genealogy sites? I also do not think someone who is arrested as a suspect should be forced to give a DNA sample. If someone is convicted then perhaps a DNA sample can be taken but if you are only suspected of a crime you should have the right to due process before DNA samples are taken.

Posted by:

28 Oct 2015

@ Nancy

The problem with that is that the suspicion could have gotten him fired before the evidence cleared him, and the mere fact of his having been under suspicion would be enough to taint him in some (ignorant) peoples' eyes, even after his being cleared.

Posted by:

29 Oct 2015

I hate sloppy police work, and hate even more when labs misuse evidence to convict innocence people. And don't think that doesn't happen. We had an Oklahoma City lab tech do just that.

Posted by:

29 Oct 2015

It would seem that many here are trying to blame the police and judicial system for "convicting" innocent people. Whereas the real culprits here are the mighty and unaccountable Press.

Posted by:

30 Oct 2015

Golly Gee Whiz...you sure can ascertain the libs from the cons in above world views and responses. I'll go with mandatory testing of DNA for a specific purpose that demonstrates ALL Americans are related to Adam and Eve. Yes, that's it. Now all atheists can know their heritage. Praise the Lord. Awesome.

Posted by:

02 Nov 2015

Given the retaliatory atmosphere and rough justice now, Mr Usry could well have lost his job, had his home wrecked and been harrassed, all to no avail on a tenuous theory.Innocence simply does not combat that and there is no recourse, especially if you have limited funds. Land of the free to root about and make up stuff!

Posted by:

07 Nov 2015

Not guilty your Honour for it was Adam I got the DNA.

Oh and Eve who gave him the Bloody apple.

Posted by:

01 May 2016

This is a bit late: May 2016. However, I wish to point out that Ancestry.com has one horrendous mistake--at least--in that it shows one of my ancestors as having married his own mother. Accuracy counts. So if Ancestry.com got that wrong, then how am I to know if they didn't accidentally use the wrong DNA? The old "I've done nothing wrong so why should I care" philosophy is fine as long as 100% accuracy occurs. I have mixed feelings on the DNA as ID since it's not 100% accurate 100% of the time.

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