Familial DNA Searches May Make You Think Twice About Signing Up With Private Genetic Services

from the running-in-family dept

Using DNA found at the scene of a crime to identify the guilty party is pretty routine these days, but, as Mike discussed many years ago, police have been getting more aggressive in going much further: carrying out "familial" DNA searches on privately-held genetic databases. That link is to a recent Wired article that concerns the case of Michael Usry, who became a suspect in a 1966 1996 murder case because of his father's DNA:

Detectives had focused on Usry after running a familial DNA search, a technique that allows investigators to identify suspects who don’t have DNA in a law enforcement database but whose close relatives have had their genetic profiles cataloged. In Usry's case the crime scene DNA bore numerous similarities to that of Usry’s father, who years earlier had donated a DNA sample to a genealogy project through his Mormon church in Mississippi. That project’s database was later purchased by Ancestry, which made it publicly searchable -- a decision that didn’t take into account the possibility that cops might someday use it to hunt for genetic leads.
Using general similarities as the yardstick rather than more exact matches means that false positives are more likely -- as in this case, when Usry's own DNA proved he had nothing to do with the murder. Those similarities were only found because his father's DNA was in a privately-held genetic database that the police could access. That's unusual, but becoming more common as services like Ancestry.com and 23andMe gather many more DNA samples.

According to an article on Fusion.net, Ancestry now has over 800,000 samples, while 23andMe has a million customers (Ancestry says that a more up-to-date figure is 1.2 million members in its database). Those are significant holdings, and it's only natural that the police would try to use them to solve crimes; both companies confirm that they will turn over information from their databases to law enforcement agencies if served with a suitable court order. A more recent post on Fusion.net notes that 23andMe has produced its first transparency report (direct link, but Techdirt readers outside the US may have to use the Google cache version for reasons that are not clear.) The report shows that a total of four requests were received from the US authorities, concerning five 23andMe customers, and indicates that the company was successful in denying those requests, without giving details.

Although understandable, this kind of access is problematic for people who sign up for these services, for reasons made clear by the Usry case. The DNA that goes into the database affects not only the donor, if a rough match to crime materials is found by the police, but many close relatives whose genetic make-up is necessarily similar. As a result, it's entirely possible that completely innocent people might have to go through the traumatic experience of being a suspect just as Usry did before more precise tests ruled him out.

That's unfortunate, because it adds a complicating factor to the decision about whether to provide DNA to interesting and innovative services like Ancestry.com and 23andMe: doing so means future generations might be put at risk of erroneous police interest. The only way to prove their innocence would be to hand over their DNA to the authorities for detailed testing, which then raises the question of what happens to it afterwards.

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  • identicon
    Rich Kulawiec, 22 Oct 2015 @ 4:06am

    That was then; this is now

    Those are significant holdings, and it's only natural that the police would try to use them to solve crimes; both companies confirm that they will turn over information from their databases to law enforcement agencies if served with a suitable court order.

    It's only a matter of time until these companies are compelled to turn over ALL data and to remain silent about doing so. Whether that's done via NSL or by quietly backdooring them, it will happen. Their repositories are too rich and too tempting to be left untapped. So...their assurances mean nothing. Their public statements mean nothing. Their transparency reports mean nothing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2015 @ 6:12am

      Re: That was then; this is now

      What gave you the impression that they weren't fronts to begin with? Has anybody vetted their funding histories? And exactly how far ARE these guys from the NSA repository in Utah? And do they have any co-employment?

      National government DNA databases. What could possibly go wrong?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2015 @ 1:32pm

      Re: That was then; this is now

      "It's only a matter of time until these companies are compelled to turn over ALL data and to remain silent about doing so"

      See: CISA.

      Which will also conveniently allow them to share data with other companies, as well.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Oct 2015 @ 8:31am

      Re: That was then; this is now

      Actually the cops have been doing one better for well over a decade now. They show up at gradeschools, and under the guises of a program to 'help locate lost, missing, or abducted children' proceed to scare the Parents into voluntarily giving up DNA in the form of mouth swabs.
      These then get analyzed and filed into a database, which the Cops can then search at will, without warrant or oversight, forever.
      Many people don't even realize the Cops already HAVE their DNA on file, because it happened so long ago... if they do have memories of the 'Safety Presentation' it rarely occurs to them what actually happened.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Klaus, 26 Oct 2015 @ 4:10am

      Re: That was then; this is now

      Once of the scariest films I know; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119177/, Gattaca (1997), because of all the sci-fi films I've ever watched, and knowing what I know about how shallow and corruptable society can be, this is one I can see coming true. And it is a horrifying future.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2015 @ 4:19am

    1966

    a suspect in a 1966 murder case

    I think that's supposed to be "1996".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2015 @ 5:48am

    yes, because COPs running NDA tests have shown to have a scientifically peer reviewed reliability of 0.083%.
    (This is not including the factor of the risk assessment on the firmware of a couple of "lab" devices involved)
    YMMV

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Rekrul, 22 Oct 2015 @ 10:42am

      Re:

      yes, because COPs running NDA tests have shown to have a scientifically peer reviewed reliability of 0.083%.

      Give the cops a break, those non-disclosure agreements are written by lawyers, so of course they're hard to understand!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    annonymouse, 22 Oct 2015 @ 6:18am

    Yes your honour the match has a certainty of one in a million.
    Would the prosecution please present the other matches then?
    What other matches?
    Well for one the tristate area population is 380 million and I at least did not fail grade school math.
    ....
    Some time latter.
    ....
    Judge Judy finds local prosecutors guilty of all crimes due to overwhelming DNA evidence.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2015 @ 7:00am

    one problem with transparency report

    It's just a count of the incidences they can legally admit to. What about sealed requests?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 22 Oct 2015 @ 7:11am

    Various strains of lab mice have been bred for various conditions: There are strains bred to be more prone to alcoholism, cancer, obesity, diabetes, etc.

    Look for those same traits in genetic databases - with familial DNA covering those not in the databases - and you've got a valuable target marketing tool.

    Ancestry databases may resist police demands, but I doubt they'll resist the money.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2015 @ 9:09am

      Re:

      ...Ancestry databases may resist police demands, but I doubt they'll resist the money...

      That hasn't stopped cities, counties, and states from offering for sale their databases. I bought a car in the 1980s and the state misspelled my legal name on the title. Several months later I started getting junk mail with my misspelled legal name. Don't think for one minute a police department won't offer to buy a database, even if they go through another department to disguise the end user.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2015 @ 8:21am

    Confused Lawyer Syndrome

    DNA should be illegal, everybody get rid of yours, or your families.

    Wait, what I meant was DNA databases should fall under HIPPA rules, and not be sellable, or accesible by anyone who is not currently providing medical care to a person. Um not that anyone would provide medical care to a non-person. NO I am NOT denigrating your pet. How could you share DNA with your pet??? You did WHAT?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 22 Oct 2015 @ 9:29am

      Re: Confused Lawyer Syndrome

      I agree, it should be regulated under HIPAA rules, but remember the huge loophole with HIPAA: it only applies to certain health care professionals, insurance companies, and certain health care data clearinghouses.

      For example, if I were to obtain sensitive medical data about you, I can legally ignore HIPAA rules completely since I am not a health care professional. The only rule I'd have to comply with is to not do any work with or for an entity that is covered under HIPAA.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2015 @ 9:46am

        Re: Re: Confused Lawyer Syndrome

        would this apply to employers, etc as well ? are they not subject to any restrictions of sharing such info that they may be incidentally exposed to, say through the process of getting company subsidized insurance for employees ?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2015 @ 10:15am

        Re: Re: Confused Lawyer Syndrome

        Isn't it unfortunate that our legislative representatives cannot see past their greed (desire to maintain power vis a vis re-election graft) and create legislation that benefits the electorate, is effective, and actually achieves the stated goal.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2015 @ 8:49am

    As a typical american "mix of everything", I've often thought about going through Ancestry DNA or some similar service to find out more about where I came from.

    This is the reason I have not yet done so.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    New Mexico Mark, 22 Oct 2015 @ 10:13am

    Unreasonable weighting of evidence

    "it's entirely possible that completely innocent people might have to go through the traumatic experience of being a suspect just as Usry did before more precise tests ruled him out."

    Really? I imagine this "suspect" could have easily proved he was nowhere near the crime scene at the time the crime was committed. However, in this age evidence like that is completely ignored in the light of sexier evidence like DNA.

    I realize that DNA can be very strong evidence, but only when many criteria are met. Again and again, people have been falsely convicted primarily on DNA evidence, and only years later does it come to light that there were problems with how evidence was collected, stored, analyzed, or presented in court.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 22 Oct 2015 @ 10:48am

    The only way to prove their innocence would be to hand over their DNA to the authorities for detailed testing, which then raises the question of what happens to it afterwards.

    It most likely stays in the law enforcement database for all eternity, just in case you ever happen to commit a crime in the future.

    All the concern over police searching private DNA databases is misplaced in my opinion. Give it another 10-20 years and doctors will be required to collect a DNA sample at birth, which will then go into a national (or possibly international) database. I'm actually surprised this hasn't been done before now. Actually, I'm surprised that the government has yet required States to collect people's fingerprints when they get a driver's license.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Roger Strong (profile), 22 Oct 2015 @ 11:06am

      Re:

      > Give it another 10-20 years and doctors will be required to collect a DNA sample at birth

      Unlikely. DNA can only be used to solve murder, rape and the occasional armed robbery. Not important things like piracy and copyright violations.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2015 @ 11:19am

      Re:

      DNA collection will be an ever-expanding exercise.

      However, "DNA Collection" isn't what it sounds like; what is usually being collected is specific marker patterns, NOT a complete genome. As such, the data is of limited use beyond acting as a filter (which appears to be how it was used in this case).

      But what's REALLY interesting is that about the time you'd think that it would become a requirement (10-20 years), gene therapy will have matured to the point where a collected sample from one year might not even match the marker patterns from the same person, a few years later.

      This is going to make the entire database pretty useless, as well as screw up future generation's genetic anthropology efforts, unless people log all changes to their genome for posterity.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Vladilyich, 24 Oct 2015 @ 6:55pm

      Re: DNA

      They already are. There has been a real hullabaloo in Minnesota for about 5 years now over this single issue. The state requires that all infants get a PKU test (blood test from the heel) at birth. The state has been storing these, WITHOUT parental consent for close to a decade and refuses to destroy them. They have also been caught sending copies of their database directly to the FBI. All children born in that state since the turn of the century are on record with "law enforcement" and will remain there for life.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    GEMont (profile), 24 Oct 2015 @ 9:41pm

    Me (tm)

    So, if I copyright Me, can I sue anyone who uses My DNA for any purpose for which I did not give specific license or permission??

    ---

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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