Home DNA testing kits are now affordable and commonplace and offer to provide you with detailed information on your family ancestry or a breakdown of your genetics. It also means there’s a number of private companies who now hold large databases of genetic data, and the FBI has gained access to one of the most popular.
As BuzzFeed reports, this week FamilyTreeDNA confirmed that it is working with the FBI and allowing local law enforcement access to its genealogy database. The number of DNA profiles stored in that database is thought to total over a million.
There are a number of active cases that haven’t been solved because there’s DNA evidence, but no one to match it to. By opening up the genealogy database to the FBI, FamilyTreeDNA is potentially going to help solve a number of those crimes. In particular, historical murders and rapes.
The FBI is already using publicly available DNA databases, but this is the first time it has gained access to a private database. It does, of course, raise some privacy concerns and a few FamilyTreeDNA customers may be contacting the company to ask what’s going on, and possibly how to go about removing their data from the database
The agreement between the FBI and FamilyTreeDNA sees the company work on a case-by-case basis. So far, “fewer than 10 cases” have required access to the database. For users, there’s kits available to purchase to find out paternal, family, and maternal ancestry, but it’s also possible to upload existing data for free and gain free access to autosomal matches and the Family Finder (Matrix Access).
In its privacy statement, FamilyTreeDNA makes it clear that your personal information is never shared with third parties without additional consent. Your genetic information will never be shared with “pharmaceutical or insurance companies, employers, or third-party marketers without your express consent.” The terms of service got updated in December to state (in Section 6.B.xii) that law enforcement can make use of the database to “identify the perpetrator of a violent crime.” Sexual assault, rape, homicide, and the remains of a deceased all fall under that category.
Bennett Greenspan, president and founder of FamilyTreeDNA’s parent company Gene by Gene, released a statement explaining, “We came to the conclusion that if law enforcement created accounts, with the same level of access to the database as the standard FamilyTreeDNA user, they would not be violating user privacy and confidentiality.” The company later further clarified by stating, “In order for the FBI to obtain any additional information, they would have to provide a valid court-order such as a subpoena or search warrant.”
On the one hand, this managed access to the DNA profile data could help solve a few crimes and that’s a good thing. However, there’s now over a million people who have profiles the FBI can access, and most if not all of them likely didn’t realize that would be allowed when they bought a test kit or transferred their data on to the FamilyTreeDNA database.