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john hawks weblog

paleoanthropology, genetics and evolution

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Family Tree DNA database now available to FBI investigators

Salvador Hernandez reports for Buzzfeed that Family Tree DNA has now opened its database of genetic information from more than a million users to the FBI: “One Of The Biggest At-Home DNA Testing Companies Is Working With The FBI”.

In December 2018, the company changed its terms of service to allow law enforcement to use the database to identify suspects of “a violent crime” such as homicide or sexual assault, and to identify the remains of a victim.
In a statement, Bennett Greenspan, the president and founder of Gene-by-Gene, Family Tree's parent company, said the firm would not be violating its terms of privacy to its customers, despite the FBI's access.
"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," Greenspan said.

That’s a devious interpretation of the terms of service. Since anyone can upload data to the service, it is probably already true that people have uploaded genome data that doesn’t belong to them. It might therefore have been trivial for the FBI to work within the Family Tree DNA service even without any formal permission from the company.

Then again, here’s a shot from the company’s current website:

Family Tree DNA privacy promise

Hmmm….

How worried about this should anyone be?

When it comes to it, the science is clear that once a critical number of people have voluntarily shared their genome data, essentially every individual will have a third cousin or closer relative in the database. Crimes today are being solved not because criminals themselves have uploaded their data, but because their distant relatives have done so.

With more than a million individuals, the Family Tree DNA database kickstarts that process. It’s a larger dataset than the public ones that law enforcement agencies used last year to catch the Golden State Killer and others.

Family Tree DNA is not, however, unique or essential to the process. I don’t think there’s much question that a million people in the U.S. would voluntarily provide their genomes to a law enforcement database if it were marketed to them. “Help us catch the killers!” It really wouldn’t take much more than that, and the government could have its own version. Or the present freely available upload sites would just have to grow larger, which they already are on track to do.

Such databases have different blind spots, since genealogy buffs contribute their DNA for different reasons than the genome neighborhood watch. But we are inevitably within a couple of years of law enforcement being able to track down a third cousin of any genetic sample they collect.

In light of this inevitability, it would be wise for the FBI and government to think carefully about how they want citizens to participate in the process. The Family Tree DNA process today requires issuing a warrant to obtain information about distant relatives of a suspect DNA sample.

I think it is unwise to create a situation where courts are issuing such warrants to distant relatives solely because of partial DNA matches. It’s entirely avoidable by relying upon people who actually volunteer to help authorities search for criminal matches.

None of these tactical issues adjust the underlying reality: We are very near the point when every individual will be identifiable through DNA matches, even if that individual has not contributed his or her own DNA samples to any database.