Just like Cambridge Analytica rocked Facebook, submitting your DNA to one of those genealogy sites is a threat to your privacy.
Forensic science. A mainstay of all detective shows. Tracking down people with the tiniest bit of DNA. Recently, California’s Golden State Killer was caught after escaping every time he committed a series of particularly sadistic rapes and murders. How did the police do it? A team of detectives used a genealogy website in their efforts to track him down.
Surprised? There is little real fantasy left on television. Once you submit your DNA to one of the genealogy sites, you have lost control of it. Police have access to this data for the rest of your life. Even if you don’t submit a sample, the DNA of a distant cousin could get you caught up in a police manhunt.
Privacy is becoming more and more elusive.
However, we do want to catch people like the Golden State Killer. Efforts to do this are trampling privacy rights and rules do not exist yet. Has a line been crossed with a DNA dragnet? A Rutgers University law enforcement expert says no. Why? Searching the DNA databases of law enforcement allows police only to look for matches among those with links to crime or their relatives. While many criminals are repeat offenders, not all have been arrested before. Genealogy databases compare your DNA with others to do your ancestry. Police used real DNA from a 1980 crime scene of the Golden State Killer. As the company created online family trees it looked for shared ancestors. It found great-great-great grandparents who lived in the early 1800s. Police used this couple to sketch family trees down to the present, one of who was a disgraced ex-cop. Officers got his DNA off a discarded object and it matched. The same type of thing is done for fingerprints – they are compared to the FBI database of people arrested, but not convicted, and those who provide fingerprints for their jobs.
According to genealogy sites, more than 80 percent of users agree to let sites sell their genetic information to drug companies. So, if people give personal information to a private company that profits from it, should law enforcement be excluded from using these databases to solve crimes? Is this in the public interest? Data is already mined from license plate readers or social media. Data searches on genealogy websites should only be based on a formal criminal inquiry and misuse should be sanctioned. Any search should start from DNA from a crime scene and not based on a description taken by an officer where the database is asked to give everyone who fits the profile.
What else do we need? Government oversight of the companies? Should they be allowed to sell your DNA profile to pharmacy companies who may someday market a drug to you based on your genetic health risks? Do you want to know you are prone to Alzheimer’s? But those who are experts are skeptical about convictions based on a DNA match. It’s just one piece of an investigative puzzle. A false lead from an ancestry site is handled no differently than other leads from bloody objects ore license plates. Suspects are eliminated through regular detective work.
More discussion has centered on privacy issues than policing potential. Law enforcement doesn’t want to talk about use of these databases because it’s like admitting monitoring of cellphones of gang members. Facebook doesn’t want their data to go to the police because it will scare people off the platform. So the arguments have been shaped by privacy and civil liberties advocates and by industry. We could catch more criminals and have rules that prevent abuse. But (and there’s always at least one).
New Jersey and other states collect DNA from anyone arrested for a serious crime and many of those convicted, even of misdemeanors. Police are able to search state and national DNA databases. But (there it is), to search a private genealogy site there should be a compelling case that every other possible means has been exhausted. Some believe only the convicted should go into law enforcement DNA databases, not arrestees who were not found guilty.
It looks like we are at a crossroads. The Constitution doesn’t explicitly say we have a right to privacy. Police need a court order to draw blood from a suspect to get DNA or root through trash. DNA in law enforcement databases does not give you hair color or eye color or if you’re prone to certain diseases. Genealogy companies are able to sequence more deeply into genome. Cops may find crime scene data and want to know the race of the assailant.
The problem? Offender databases are a form of racial profiling. Using them for familial searches affects blacks and Hispanics whose relatives go to jail at higher rates. But using genealogy websites can lead to police rounding up all suspects of a certain race with a genetic mutation. Do we want that? What if an object contained several DNA profiles? How does one claim to be innocent when your DNA is on the murder weapon? We tend to see DNA evidence as infallible and conclusive.
What should we be afraid of?
- Anyone can set up a genealogy company. How do we know what will happen to our DNA?
- We don’t know if our information can be expunged from a private website.
- We are protected against health insurance companies discriminating on the basis of genetic defects but not life insurance companies.
- There are no rules against the government doing anything with our genetic information.
- Movement toward regulating ancestry websites call for the privacy policies of DNA companies to be clear and transparent. But once warned, there are few limits on what they can do.
- Who should oversee such a powerful tool? Private companies or law enforcement? What about hacking?
- What about a false lead that has police question your grandfather because he has a rare genetic mutation?
Did you really need to know what percentage of whatever you are? What do you think?