Just one week ago, we warned that the government — helped by Congress (which adopted legislation allowing police to collect and test DNA immediately following arrests), President Trump (who signed the Rapid DNA Act into law), the courts (which have ruled that police can routinely take DNA samples from people who are arrested but not yet convicted of a crime), and local police agencies (which are chomping at the bit to acquire this new crime-fighting gadget) — was embarking on a diabolical campaign to create a nation of suspects predicated on a massive national DNA database.
As it turns out we were right, but we forgot one key spoke of the government’s campaign to collect genetic information from as many individuals as possible: “innocent”, commercial companies, who not only collect DNA from willing clients, but are also paid for it.
FamilyTreeDNA, one of the pioneers of the growing market for “at home”, consumer genetic testing, confirmed a report from BuzzFeed that it has quietly granted the Federal Bureau of Investigation access to its vast trove of nearly 2 million genetic profiles.
While concerns about unrestricted access to genetic information gathered by testing companies had swelled since April, when police used a genealogy website to ensnare a suspect in the decades-old case of the Golden State Killer, that site, GEDmatch, was open-source, meaning police were able to upload crime-scene DNA data to the site without permission. However, the latest arrangement marks the first time a commercial testing company has voluntarily given law enforcement access to user data.
Worse, it did so secretly, without obtaining prior permission from its users.
The move is of significant concern to much more than just privacy-minded FamilyTreeDNA customers. As Bloomberg notes, one person sharing genetic information also exposes those to whom they are closely related. That’s how police caught the alleged Golden State Killer. And here is a stunning statistics – according to a 2018 study, only 2% of the population needs to have done a DNA test for virtually everyone’s genetic information to be represented in that data.
Thanks to its millions of customers, FamilyTreeDNA’s “cooperation” with the FBI more than doubles the amount of genetic data law enforcement already had access to through GEDmatch. According to BuzzFeed, and as confirmed by the company, on a case-by-case basis the company has agreed to test DNA samples for the FBI and upload profiles to its database, allowing law enforcement to see familial matches to crime-scene samples.
There is one caveat: FamilyTreeDNA said law enforcement may not freely browse genetic data but rather has access only to the same information any user might. Which of course, is ridiculous when the FBI has the same access as every single user.
Having been caught abusing client privacy, the company decided to make the best of it and despite the (coming) outrage over privacy abuse, Family Tree officials touted their work with the FBI to BuzzFeed.
“Without realizing it [Family Tree DNA founder and CEO Bennett Greenspan] had inadvertently created a platform that, nearly two decades later, would help law enforcement agencies solve violent crimes faster than ever,” the company said in a statement.