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Creating a Nation of Suspects: Who Shares Your DNA with the FBI?
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Creating a Nation of Suspects: Who Shares Your DNA with the FBI?

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A Houston-based company, which touts itself as a pioneer in the genetic testing industry and the first to offer a direct-to-consumer test kit, disclosed its relationship with the FBI, saying in a statement that allowing access “would help law enforcement agencies solve violent crimes faster than ever.”

Last summer, FamilyTree DNA was among a list of consumer genetic testing companies that agreed to a suite of voluntary privacy guidelines, but as of Friday morning, it had been crossed off the list after it was revealed that the company had been lying all along.

In 2000, when an avid genealogist Bennett Greenspan created FamilyTreeDNA, the first direct-to-consumer DNA testing company, he had inadvertently created a platform that, nearly two decades later, would help law enforcement agencies solve violent crimes.

Some would argue he has broken every ethical and moral rule of his in his profession, but genealogist Bennett Greenspan prefers to see himself as a “crime-fighter.”

A new report by BuzzFeed News alleges that the company has been aiding the FBI for months.

FamilyTreeDNA, one of the largest private genetic testing companies whose home-testing kits enable people to trace their ancestry and locate relatives, confirmed it has quietly granted the Federal Bureau of Investigation access to its genealogy database of nearly 2 million genetic profiles in an effort to solve violent crime cases.

Despite the very obvious privacy concerns this raises, the company seemed comfortable and perhaps even boastful regarding its relationship with law enforcement, releasing an official statement claiming that their agreement to work with the FBI “would help law enforcement agencies solve violent crimes faster than ever.” Such cooperation marks the first time a private firm has agreed to voluntarily give law enforcement access to user data.

Their work with the FBI had not been disclosed to any of their customers, though…

While FamilyTree does not have a contract with the FBI, the firm has agreed to test DNA samples and upload the profiles to its database on a case-by-case basis since last fall, a company spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, adding that the company’s work with the FBI is “a very new development, which started with one case last year and morphed.”

To date, the company has reportedly cooperated with the agency “in less than 10 cases.”

How did it all begin?

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.

The practice gained international attention in April 2018 when detectives used the DNA-matching technique, scanning a public database, to find a distant relative that led to the eventual arrest of the suspected Golden State Killer, who killed 13 people and raped dozens of others.

The technique was an untested long shot then, and immediately raised questions about privacy, ethics, and legal implications in criminal investigations, yet law enforcement officials have been eager to learn and adopt it.

The FBI, in particular, quietly assembled a small but active unit focused on employing the method to crack some of the nation’s most difficult cases.

Led by an attorney in the FBI’s Los Angeles office, Steve Kramer, the FBI’s Investigative Genealogy Unit has since been deployed across the country, aiding police departments in utilizing the technique and instructing officers on how to employ the new tools.

Family Tree, in the meantime, gave their customers the opportunity to opt out of any familial matching, which would prevent their profiles from being searchable by the FBI, stating that “the genealogy community, their privacy and confidentiality has always been our top priority.”

However, by doing so, customers would also be unable to use one of the key features of the service: finding possible relatives through DNA testing.

One wonders how many paying clients would have “opted in” had they known they were also sharing their DNA with the FBI.

Now, under the previously undisclosed cooperation with Family Tree, the FBI has gained access to more than a million DNA profiles from the company, most of which were uploaded before the company’s customers had any knowledge of its relationship with the FBI.

How does it help?

The access could be the key to unlocking murders and rapes that have gone cold for years, opening up what many argue is the greatest investigative tactic since the advent of DNA identification.

For detectives across the country desperate for leads, investigative genealogy has become the newest frontier for law enforcement agencies. Until now, investigators have limited their searches to public and free databases, where genealogy enthusiasts had willingly uploaded the data knowing it could be accessible to anyone.

“This is the new great big revolution in law enforcement,” Paul Holes, a retired investigator with the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office, who led the team that cracked the Golden State Killer case, said. “It’s the first big one since the implementation of DNA 20-some years ago.”

By uploading DNA collected from a crime scene to genealogy databases, detectives have been able to locate distant relatives of suspected serial killers and rapists. Then, assembling a genealogical tree from that information, they have worked to identify suspects of crimes.

“I would never do anything to betray the trust of my customers”

Bennett Greenspan / PrtSc: familytreedna.com

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. Officials can then upload that sample to databases, including FamilyTreeDNA, and search for possible matches.

In a statement, 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.

“If we can help prevent violent crimes and save lives or bring closure to families, then we’re going to do that,” Greenspan said. “We’re going to do it within a framework that continues to ensure that the privacy of our customers, which has been paramount to us since day one and remains so today, is protected to the greatest degree possible.”

“I spent many, many nights and many, many weekends thinking of what privacy and confidentiality would mean to a genealogist such as me,” he said in a video that appeared online at the end of January.

He continued: “I would never do anything to betray the trust of my customers and at the same time I felt it important to enable my customers to crowd source the catching of criminals.”

The FBI can’t get more than necessary

Despite the FBI’s access to the database, agents would not be able to obtain more information than what is accessible to normal users of the service, company officials assured. To obtain any information beyond that would require a legal order, the statement said.

“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,” Greenspan said.

“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.”

While the FBI does not have the ability to freely browse genetic profiles in the library, the move is sure to raise privacy concerns about law enforcement gaining the ability to look for DNA matches, or more likely, relatives linked by uploaded user data.

The “first” results of the cooperation

Those familiar with the technique argue that despite privacy concerns, few would be opposed to helping catch a homicide or rape suspect.

To be sure, there are some fringe benefits – like authorities actually doing what they said they would do – since the arrest of the suspected Golden State Killer whom we mentioned earlier. By doubling the amount of data law enforcement have access to, those numbers are likely to rise.

In the last nine months, police in Maryland, Washington, California, and Florida have solved cases using the method after consulting with the FBI’s Investigative Genealogy Unit, a federal law enforcement official said.

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.

“The real risk is not exposure of info but that an innocent person could be swept up in a criminal investigation because his or her cousin has taken a DNA test,’’ said Debbie Kennett, a British genealogist and author. “On the other hand, the more people in the databases and the closer the matches, the less chance there is that people will make mistakes.’’

And, of course, if every person’s DNA is in one giant genetic database, there would be no mistakes. Now if only the risk of abuse of this information was also nil, then everything would be great.

Joseph James DeAngelo, the suspected Golden State Killer, appears in court for his arraignment on April 27, 2018, in Sacramento. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The FBI declined to offer details regarding how many cases the new unit has participated in, or the makeup of the team.

“We obviously assisted other investigations that have had successful results,” Laura Eimiller, spokesperson for the FBI’s office in Los Angeles, said

According to the company, it currently has 1,021,774 records in its database. By comparison, Ancestry.com is believed to have a database of about 10 million profiles, while 23andMe counts about 5 million accounts.

Like other DNA testing companies, Family Tree has touted its protection of customer privacy. Earlier this year, the company was ranked by US News as the best kit for “research and strict privacy,” and PC World named it the best kit for privacy.

Greenspan, in the statement, said that won’t change despite the FBI’s involvement.

“Working with law enforcement to process DNA samples from the scene of a violent crime or identifying an unknown victim does not change our policy never to sell or barter our customers’ private information with a third party,” Greenspan said. “Our policy remains fully intact and in force.”

How did customers react?

Needless to say, the genealogy community has expressed dismay, and for people who used the service not knowing the FBI had access to it – which would be all of them – the news was concerning.

“All in all, I feel violated, I feel they have violated my trust as a customer,” Leah Larkin, a genetic genealogist based in Livermore, California, and one of the administrators of a Facebook genealogy group with about 50,000 members, said. “I’ve got to decide whether I want to opt out of matching or delete my kits.”

Larkin predicted that enthusiasts will be split, from those who will be fine with law enforcement gaining access to their DNA profiles to others who will be outraged by the invasion of privacy. “I think it’s going to cause a lot of uproar,” she said. “We’re going to get the full spectrum.”

“We are nearing a de-facto national DNA database,” Natalie Ram, an assistant law professor at the University of Baltimore who specializes in bioethics and criminal justice, told BuzzFeed News. “We don’t choose our genetic relatives, and I cannot sever my genetic relation to them. There’s nothing voluntary about that.”

Others were of the same opinion.

“I would be very against Family Tree DNA allowing law enforcement to have open access to their DNA database,” Debbie Kennett, a British genealogy enthusiast and honorary research associate at University College London said. “I don’t think it’s right for law enforcement to use a database without the informed consent of the consumer.”

John Verdi, vice president of policy at the Future of Privacy Forum, which maintains the list, said “the deal between FamilyTreeDNA and the FBI is deeply flawed.”

“It’s out of line with industry best practices, it’s out of line with what leaders in the space do and it’s out of line with consumer expectations.”

Some in the field have begun arguing that a universal, government-controlled database may be better for privacy than allowing law enforcement to gain access to consumer information: After all, what’s the difference if the companies will simply hand over all the information secretly?

Anyway, as John W. Whitehead wrote, “if the government gets its hands on your DNA, they as good as have you in their clutches.”

As more and more data flows from your body and brain to the smart machines via the biometric sensors, it will become easy for corporations and government agencies to know you, manipulate you, and make decisions on your behalf. Even more importantly, they could decipher the deep mechanisms of all bodies and brains, and thereby gain the power to engineer life. If we want to prevent a small elite from monopolising such godlike powers, and if we want to prevent humankind from splitting into biological castes, the key question is: who owns the data? Does the data about my DNA, my brain and my life belong to me, to the government, to a corporation, or to the human collective?―Professor Yuval Noah Harari

Author: USA Really