(NaturalNews) Popular genealogy website Ancestry.com, along with a similar site, 23andMe.com, uses clients’ DNA to trace their health history, family tree and other characteristics. DNA is like a fingerprint — it is exclusive to each person.
And now Uncle Sam wants it.
As reported by writer Kashmir Hill of Fusion, when the two companies first invited customers curious about their past to send in DNA samples for genealogy tracing and medical diagnostic testing, privacy advocates sounded the alarm over the creation of humongous databases that will undoubtedly become enticing to the federal government and even local law enforcement. DNA, of course, can be used to solve crimes (or absolve those who have been falsely accused).
Such databases would have “serious information about you and your family,” Jeremy Gruber, a genetic privacy advocate, told Hill about five years ago when the sites and the services they offered began to get popular.
Now, both sites have more than a million customers, and such warnings are looking prophetic. As Wired reported recently, “your relative’s DNA could turn you into a suspect,” as proven by a case in which New Orleans filmmaker Michael Usry was turned into a suspect over an unsolved murder case using semen collected in 1996.
Not the first time
Hill elaborated further:
“The cops searched an Ancestry.com database and got a familial match to a saliva sample Usry’s father had given years earlier. Usry was ultimately determined to be innocent and the Electronic Frontier Foundation called it a ‘wild goose chase’ that demonstrated ‘the very real threats to privacy and civil liberties posed by law enforcement access to private genetic databases.’ “
The FBI has long maintained a national genetic database containing samples from arrestees and convicted felons. However, Usry’s case was the most public example of the police colluding with an online genealogy company in order to hunt down a suspect.
Yet, as Hill points out, the Ursy case wasn’t the first, “and it means that people who submitted genetic samples for reasons of health, curiosity, or to advance science could now end up in a genetic line-up of criminal suspects.”
She writes that both companies stipulate in their privacy policies that they will comply with court orders to turn over genealogy data. 23andMe told her the company has received some requests both from state law enforcement and the FBI but that it has “successfully resisted them” so far.
“When required to do so by law…”
Kate Black, 23andMe’s first privacy officer, said her company will begin publishing a transparency report, much like those published by Google, Facebook and Twitter, by the end of the year. Black told Hill the report would reveal how many government agency requests for DNA data were received and, presumably, how many of those requests were granted.
“In the event we are required by law to make a disclosure, we will notify the affected customer through the contact information provided to us, unless doing so would violate the law or a court order,” Black told Hill via email.
Ancestry.com officials, on the other hand, would not disclose the number of requests the firm has received from law enforcement sources. They also wanted to clarify that, in the Usry case, the particular database searched was one that was publicly available, but that Ancestry.com has since taken it offline with a message that the site was “used for purposes other than that which it was intended.” Hill notes that police came to Ancestry.com with a warrant to get the name that matched the DNA in the Usry case.
“On occasion when required by law to do so, and in this instance we were, we have cooperated with law enforcement and the courts to provide only the specific information requested but we don’t comment on the specifics of cases,” said a spokesperson.
Written by J. D. Heyes
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