Is sharing DNA a breach of privacy or a tool for the greater good?
Prya Oliveira, Staff Writer
A recent controversy has risen from one of the most trusted DNA companies, FamilyTree DNA. The sharing of information between FamilyTree DNA and the FBI has brought up many concerns regarding the violation of privacy and consent. FamilyTree DNA was one of the first DNA testing companies with the title of the “best DNA kit for consumer privacy,” by the U.S. News and PCWorld. Although the FBI has used another genealogy company, GEDmatch for DNA information, FamilyTree is the first company to grant law enforcement access to user data.
The concern about sharing DNA information with police has never been a hot topic until the FBI arrested a suspect in the case of the Golden State Killer. The FBI used GEDmatch, an open-source where they uploaded crime scene DNA to the site without permission. This seems like a great investigative tool for cases that have no suspects, but FamilyTree gave more access to the FBI than GEDmatch did. The company agreed to test DNA samples for the FBI and upload profiles, allowing law enforcement to see familiar matches to the crime scene samples. This is exactly how the Golden State Killer was caught. The suspect, Joseph James DeAngelo was caught by linking the DNA information found on the site to a distant relative. DeAngelo was not on the site himself, but the relative’s DNA partially matched the evidence that was related to the killer. The suspect pool then went from a million suspects to one family.
This raises another concern, because although the consumer signed up for the site looking for distant relatives, the relative did not give consent to be found. FamilyTree is now allowing its customers to have their profiles hidden from the FBI, but they would be unable to find possible relatives through DNA testing, which is a major reason for them getting the test in the first place. To defend FamilyTree, CEO Bennett Greenspan said, “without realizing it, Family Tree DNA had inadvertently created a platform that, nearly two decades later, would help law enforcement agencies solve violent crimes faster than ever.” Whether someone agrees with his company or not, by using the genealogy companies, law enforcement agencies have been successful in apprehending criminals.
Greenspan also argued that there was no violation of privacy when sharing information with the FBI because they can’t access more information than the normal consumer without a warrant or subpoena. Like the case of the Golden State Killer, it has been proven that such access to information helps law enforcement because it is a new key to solving previously unsolved murders and rapes which have gone cold. An entire unit has been organized to incorporate this new investigative tool. FBI’s Investigative Genealogy Unit has been educating police departments across the country about this new database. Police departments in Washington, California, Maryland, and Florida have solved cases using the information provided by the unit. A survey done by genealogist Maurice Gleeson concluded that 85 percent of people said they didn’t mind law enforcement using their DNA profiles to catch criminals. Mariel Garcia, an MBA student at Saint Martin’s, received her genetic information from the company 23andMe. When asked about how she felt with her DNA being shared with the FBI non-consensual she responded with, “Agreeing to the terms of service essentially means that I gave my consent to 23andMe to share my data. I do not have any concerns about my genetic information being shared, I was just curious about my heritage. And I was honestly shocked by my results.”
Many people are not bothered by this type of information being shared because it can have a positive effect on society as law enforcement now has new information to catch criminals. However, advocates for privacy argue that law enforcement should not have the right to use a database without the consent of the consumer. Whichever stance you take on this new issue, it is important that we as consumers are being aware of the quality and quantity of information that we willingly give to companies.