20Oct 2015
Oct 20, 2015

People search sites DNA databases used by law enforcement

When popular people search sites invited donors to send them their DNA for medical diagnostics and in order to trace family trees and geneology privacy advocates foretold the dangers of subscribing to a genetic database that may well, in the future, be used against those donors by police and law enforcement. DNA has indelible information around you and your family. While people search sites such as Ancestry were well intentioned the writing was on the wall.

Now, some five years on people search engines such as Ancestry and 23andMe have in excess of a million clients the writing on the wall is looking a lot bolder. A recent case highlighted was that of a film maker (Michael Usry) based in New Orleans. Usry became a suspoect in a cold case from 1996 after law enforcement carried out a “familial genetic search” and relied on semen that was collected in 1996. Law enforcement trawled through the Ancestry site’s database and came up with a match (saliva sample) that Usry’s father provided some years earlier. Michael Usry was ultimately proven innocent but the EFF ( Electronic Frontier Foundation) branded the process a wild goose chase and that the process had illustrated the threat to civil liberties i.e. access to private genetic databases.

A national Genetic Database is maintained by the FBI which holds DNA samples from arrestees and convicts. However in the case of Usry this was the most blatant example of phishing private databases by law enforcement. However the real implications are that those that submitted DNA to people search engines may now well find themselves, at some point, in a DNA identity parade. If a court order is thrust under the nose of people search sites holding DNA such as Ancestry then they will turn any or all information required over to law enforcement. However 23andMe state that they have resisted requests by the FBI and law enforcement.

Erin Murphy (NYU law professor) puts forward that subscribing to people search engine databases potentially puts you and your family pasr, present and future within the radar of law enforcement. This is not what the majority of unwitting customers would have signed up to.

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