FamilyTreeDNA Deputizes Itself, Starts Pitching DNA Matching Services To Law Enforcement

from the FamilyIndictmentDNA dept

One DNA-matching company has decided it’s going to corner an under-served market: US law enforcement. FamilyTreeDNA — last seen here opening up its database to the FBI without informing its users first — is actively pitching its services to law enforcement.

The television spot, to air in San Diego first, asks anyone who has had a direct-to-consumer DNA test from another company, like 23andMe or, to upload a copy so that law enforcement can spot any connections to DNA found at crime scenes.

The advertisement features Ed Smart, father of Elizabeth Smart, a Salt Lake City teen who was abducted in 2002 but later found alive. “If you are one of the millions of people who have taken a DNA test, your help can provide the missing link,” he says in the spot.

Welcome to FamilyTreeDNA’s cooperating witness program — one it profits from by selling information customers give it to law enforcement. The tug at the heartstrings is a nice touch. FamilyTreeDNA is finally being upfront with users about its intentions for their DNA samples. This is due to its founder deciding — without consulting his customers — that they’re all as willing as he is to convert your DNA samples into public goods.

Bennett Greenspan, the firm’s founder, said he had decided he had a moral obligation to help solve old murders and rapes. Now he thinks that customers will agree and make their DNA available specifically to help out.

FamilyTreeDNA sounds like it’s finally going to seek consent from its customers, but only after having abused their trust once and under the assumption they’re all going to play ball. While some DNA companies like 23andMe are insisting on at least a subpoena before handing over access to DNA database search results, other companies are staying quiet about law enforcement access or specifically targeting law enforcement agencies with ads promising to help them work through their cold case files.

Consent is great, but it’s never going to be complete consent, no matter how FamilyTreeDNA shapes the argument. As Elizabeth Joh points out at Slate, there’s a whole lot of people involved who will never be asked for their consent once a customer agrees to allow DNA-matching sites to hand over their samples to law enforcement.

[W]hen you volunteer your DNA sample, you’re volunteering your genetic family tree, without having asked your parents, siblings, cousins, and distant cousins if they agree. That upends the usual way we think about providing information to law enforcement. You can’t give the police lawful consent to search your third cousin’s house, even if your third cousin (who you may never have met) is suspected of having been involved in a serious crime. Why are we allowing a distant relative to grant police permission to your DNA?

There’s no informed consent happening here. Customers are being treated as data points law enforcement can peruse at its leisure. A customer who agrees to be a good citizen (by clicking OK on a submission box on a private company’s website) may learn later their sample was used to lock up a close relative. Some people will be fine with this outcome. Others may regret being the critical piece of evidence used to incarcerate one of their relatives.

Whatever the case is, very few companies are being upfront about the effects of opening up database access to law enforcement. FamilyTreeDNA is using a crime victim’s parent and the founder’s Team Blue sympathies to hustle its customers towards compliance. Users who don’t like this turn of events will likely find it far more difficult to remove their DNA from FamilyTreeDNA’s database than simply hold their nose and become an willing part of this partnership.

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Comments on “FamilyTreeDNA Deputizes Itself, Starts Pitching DNA Matching Services To Law Enforcement”

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Anonymous Coward says:

A customer who agrees to be a good citizen (by clicking OK on a submission box on a private company’s website) may learn later their sample was used to lock up a close relative.

I think you’re being a bit unfair here. I doubt law enforcement would admit this was the key to the case, if there was any chance at all they could engage in evidence laundering ("parallel construction") to make it look like they just happened to find the criminal through lucky police work.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Oh look my impassive shocked face appears again.

We can make money looking at their DNA and telling them stuff… oh hey did you know there is all this other shit we can do with this to make a few bucks.

What would shock me is if someone looked at online tracking, phone tracking, smart tv spying, and the 4 billion other ways our data is collected collated and turned into cash… and had said perhaps giving DNA to a 3rd party might he the dumbest thing ever. Someone will offer them a stupid amount of money to use the data for ‘reasons’ and they will sell you out in pursuit of a buck.

I got mocked for never having a Facebook… how does your crow taste?
From the earliest times I was on the interwebs I was also focused on hiding myself & controlling who knew what. (Being a closeted gay kid, you have this innate fear of someone finding out your a homo and beating you into the ground.)
People willingly hand out tons of information and are shocked when someone uses it against them… have they not met other humans?

Sometimes being a sociopathic immortal has its benefits, sure makes it hard to market information about me when my birthday is the beginning of the universe.

sigalrm (profile) says:


Actually, the trigger for HIPAA coverage isn’t actually medical treatment, it’s insurance billing. (Remember, it’s the "Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act".

Covered Entities are generally directly associated with insurance billing, and Business Associates get looped in by providing services to Covered Entities.

There are a limited number of places that offer medical services and are strictly private payer, so they wouldn’t come under HIPAA unless they’re also working in conjunction with a CE.

23&me, Family Tree DNA, etc, don’t bill insurance, so they don’t fall under HIPAA as Covered Entities. And since their tests aren’t CLIA validated, there’s pretty much no chance of their results being used in clinical decision making, so they almost certainly don’t have Business Associate Agreements in place with any Covered Entities.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I could think of no other reason for those "DNA report" companies to exist apart from data collection for law enforcement or other government "reasons". I managed to talk my family into avoiding them despite myself and a couple others spending far too much time tracing genealogy.

But the vast majority of people are too trusting and not too sharp.

btr1701 (profile) says:


As long as the company is now getting the consent of its customers, I see no problem with this.

If you decide to rape and murder, this is just one of the (many) risks you take– that someone in your extended family may have contributed to a database that can identify you.

Too bad for you, I guess. Maybe don’t rape and murder if this worries you.

Rekrul says:

Re: Re: Consent

CSI is just a fictional television show in which technical details are lacking.

Yeah, but NCIS is totally accurate, right? I mean you feed the DNA into a computer, type furiously on the keyboard for about 20 seconds and the computer instantly spits out a 100% accurate match.

That’s how it works in the real world, right? Oh and anyone can hack a password in about 30 seconds and the "dark web" is as easy to access as Google.

Anon says:

A New take

This puts a whole new spin on sibling rivalry – "how can I screw over my obnoxious big brother by ratting him out to the police?"

Unless you are looking for a missing presumed murdered relative, where’s the upside in putting your whole extended family under suspicion? (Except it will miss those "pedigree error" illegitimate relatives that nobody knows are related? They’re probably the perp.) And if it’s to help search for a missing victim – well, the police probably already have some DNA from relatives as part of their search.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: A IMmoral obligation to help solve....

Because they have a duty to shareholders to increase their value…

Its the same thinking that has no problem jacking up the prices of drugs people will die without, because they can & they have this duty to shareholders!!!
With all of the push to allow people to sue online platforms for the actions of others, where is the lawsuit targeting shareholders who directly benefit from policies that kill people??
There is a growing number of people dying or seriously injured b/c the price of insulin has skyrocketed across the board, the execs talk about profits being rolled into research… is that like the research that was ended into viagra showing promise in treating a womens issue but it gave old men boners so they stopped the study?
It costs nothing more to make insulin, it hasn’t radically changed, but 300% mark-ups aren’t illegal. Perhaps it is time to hold the shareholders responsible for demanding profits at the expense of others.

ECA (profile) says:

EULA/other lessons to remember..

I dont care who they are, your DNA is private Data, and I dont think the corp will LIKE going to court to prove other wise..

Who here, Hasnt had a change to your bank EULA/notices/accounts, or to Internet sites, OR the Landlord, or your taxes..
You should KNow the rights you have. but also 1 small bit of contract law. The contract lasts to the POINT they wish to change it. Anything before that time HAS to stay that way. and if they change it retroactive, That is against the law..Unless yu wish it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Makes perfect sense

Makes perfect sense. A criminal who has gotten away with heinous crimes, I’m sure their first instinct is to hand their DNA in. It’s just the right thing to do.

Wondering if your family has any skeletons in the closet? Do a DNA test and see how many of your family members are hauled in for questioning!

I don’t know why anyone would perform one of these services in the first place.

Lalo Martins (profile) says:


A couple of years ago, I got a DNA test as a gift from someone close. I thought carefully about it and decided, nope, I don’t think I want a random American company I know nothing about to have all my DNA information. Discreetly, being careful that the gift-giver never caught on, I threw the whole thing in a random rubbish bin in the street near the office.

Since then, I’ve occasionally considered if I was too paranoid. Usually I concluded, ‘nah, I did the right thing’. But now I finally have proof and need wonder no more.

Cowardly Lion says:

Another Whole New Market Opportunity

Knowing just how wonderful [*sarc] the US health system is, being based on private insurance, and how frequently we hear of people being denied treatment upon the discovery of undeclared pre-existing conditions [such as teenage acne], I’m left wondering why the insurance companies have not been frantically hoovering up this data, looking for susceptibility to certain health risks.

Half a decade ago, some of the DNA genealogy sites were already boasting about their ability to provide predictive health information to their customers…

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