DNA-Matching Company Decides To Open Its Doors To The FBI Without Bothering To Inform Its Users

from the thanks-for-the-heads-up,-tools dept

Your DNA may seem like a personal thing, but a number of companies specializing in DNA testing are ensuring it's anything but. Whether you're looking for markers identifying health risks or simply want to see who you're related to, you're giving these companies permission to create a pool of DNA samples almost anyone else can access.

Law enforcement has taken note of these developments, creating fake accounts to submit samples from crime scenes in an effort to close out cases. Whether or not we agree with law enforcement's misrepresentation, there's very little standing in the way of the government accessing your DNA sample via a third party. The thing that makes people unique becomes little more than a third party record -- only a subpoena away from being in the government's possession.

But even subpoenas aren't necessary if DNA companies decided to partner up with law enforcement by giving agencies access to their databases. That's what's happening with Family Tree, a company specializing in in-home DNA testing kits, as Salvador Hernandez reports for BuzzFeed.

Family Tree DNA, one of the largest private genetic testing companies whose home-testing kits enable people to trace their ancestry and locate relatives, is working with the FBI and allowing agents to search its vast genealogy database in an effort to solve violent crime cases, BuzzFeed News has learned.

Federal and local law enforcement have used public genealogy databases for more than two years to solve cold cases, including the landmark capture of the suspected Golden State Killer, but the cooperation with Family Tree DNA and the FBI marks the first time a private firm has agreed to voluntarily allow law enforcement access to its database.

The company says the FBI cannot freely browse its databases, but this partnership suggests its not asking the FBI to run anything past a court before running a search. The company feels the potential PR hit is worth it because it's "helping" the FBI "solve violent crimes." This is a bit discouraging. We're used to government agencies excusing incursions into people's privacy with statements about "violent crime" or "terrorism" or "the War on…" or whatever. It's disheartening when a private company does it, thinking it's somehow serving the public better by turning their DNA samples into investigation fodder.

Here's the full extent of the program so far, at least according to Family DNA:

While Family Tree does not have a contract with the FBI, the firm has agreed to test DNA samples and upload the profiles to its database on a case-by-case basis since last fall, a company spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.

This at least spares the FBI the trouble of creating fake profiles to do the same thing. Still, there's little PR or societal value in allowing a government agency to do something it was probably doing already. We see it all the time at the federal level where law enforcement/national security abuses are greeted with codification rather than criticism. Sure, we don't expect all companies to give the government the cold shoulder, but we should at least expect them to demand a bit more from the government when it starts asking for access to millions of DNA records.

There's a way to opt out of the FBI's co-opting if you're a Family Tree customer. Unfortunately, this option makes Family Tree a complete misnomer.

Officials at Family Tree said customers could decide to opt out of any familial matching, which would prevent their profiles from being searchable by the FBI. But by doing so, customers would also be unable to use one of the key features of the service: finding possible relatives through DNA testing.

If someone objects to the FBI's access, the service is useless. And this access was put into place without customers being informed ahead of time or given an option to opt out prior to the government's access. No matter how enthused Family Tree may be about being part of the FBI's posse, this is a terrible way to treat customers who expected their personal info would be given a bit more privacy.

Filed Under: 3rd party doctrine, dna, fbi, home testing kit, privacy
Companies: family tree dna


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2019 @ 3:30am

    I suspect a GDPR issue could be raised from this.

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

  • icon
    Jinxed Violynne (profile), 5 Feb 2019 @ 3:53am

    I'm always discouraged by people who have the attitude "I have nothing to hide" when they feel it's okay to destroy the rights of everyone else for the sake of a fake, selfish desire to "do right" by "fighting" {today's boogeyman is: cheese}.

    This is no longer a situation of "just don't use the service". This attitude is like cancer - it spreads without regard to life.

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

  • icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 5 Feb 2019 @ 4:11am

    This is a good time to remind everyone that all such services will inevitably bow to requests from the Feds, so either avoid using them or get your data out of them now.

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

    • icon
      Chris-Mouse (profile), 5 Feb 2019 @ 5:28am

      Re:

      You may not have any choice. Remember, you share large amounts of DNA with other members of your family, so if your family members opt into a service like this, they are also making most of your DNA available.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2019 @ 6:55am

      Re: Contract Fraud

      .... sue their a$$ off in the meantime

      FamilyTree clearly committed serious contractual FRAUD with their customers-- a class action lawsuit would easily suceed in court and bankrupt that shady company.

      Other DNA companies would observe the financial disaster suffered by the fools at FamilyTree

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

  • identicon
    PAM Dirac, 5 Feb 2019 @ 4:53am

    Whether you're looking for markers identifying health risks or simply want to see who you're related to, you're giving these companies permission to create a pool of DNA samples almost anyone else can access.

    If you are only interested in markers of health risk, you can opt out of the database. Of course that doesn't give you any chance of seeing who you are related to. Why should it? The whole trade off is you give up control of who can match your data in exchange for your ability to see matches with everyone else's data. I can't see how it is reasonable to expect to say you should be able to have access to everyone else's data without individual permission, but everyone else should have to get your permission to access your data.

    If someone objects to the FBI's access, the service is useless.

    If you give each individual the option to require permission to match their data, the service is useless anyway.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2019 @ 5:15am

    Privacy is as obsolete as copyright.

    Nothing to hide, nothing to fear.

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

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2019 @ 5:34am

    Strange writing style

    Took almost three paragraphs to find the Who in this article. Techdirt loves hearing themselves talk.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2019 @ 5:59am

    I purchased a DNA testing kit

    I got a DNA kit last year and after reading through everything declined to submit my sample. The potential for future employers or insurers finding out about my family history of disease far outweigh any benefit I might get in the short term from it.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2019 @ 6:08am

    And for new customers...

    What a deal! Getting greeted with the message...

    We here at Family Tree value your privacy! Did you know you share identical DNA to John Doe 23881?

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

    • icon
      JoeCool (profile), 5 Feb 2019 @ 6:48am

      Re: And for new customers...

      Somehow, I see this going this direction:

      Did you know you share identical DNA to John Doe 23881? And for a modest fee of $500 per month (subject to change at any time), we won't tell the FBI.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2019 @ 6:40am

    This will eventually -null- out

    A DNA database and a DNA printer will make it quite easy to manufacture DNA evidence. This printed DNA evidence will be planted at crime scenes to implicate the people needed to fill the private prisons (more low level drug legalization will starve these institutions of desperately needed occupancy).

    Eventually DNA evidence will be considered tainted and inadmissible in court.

    But, by then they will have something more advanced like brain scans that will show the court video straight outa you brain. And that too will eventual be faked and implanted to implicate for those same prisons.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2019 @ 6:44am

    Is it true they didn't inform their users?

    The official quote said their policy was to never sell or barter their user data, and giving it away certainly doesn't violate that policy. Did the written privacy policy promise more? They usually say "you have no privacy" but with a lot more words.

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

    • icon
      Coyne Tibbets (profile), 5 Feb 2019 @ 12:20pm

      Re: Is it true they didn't inform their users?

      I haven't read their terms (and don't plan to) but I'm sure that the usual escape clause is present in some form. Something like, "We may change these terms at any time without notice to you." Or recourse on your part, naturally.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2019 @ 6:54am

    what's the downside?

    It's clear why the FBI wants access to this data. It absolutely will help them solve crimes and that's a good thing.

    Is there a clear, tangible problem with the FBI having access to the data?

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

    • icon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 5 Feb 2019 @ 7:02am

      Re: what's the downside?

      Think about it. While they might be looking for you, they will also investigate your aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents, children, cousins, etc.. Do they deserve to be part of a fishing expedition if it is you they are looking for? Then there is the problem that DNA floats around and cross contamination happens all the time. Just because some DNA is found at a crime scene does not mean the provider of that DNA was even ever there. Now, about those fishing expeditions...

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

      • icon
        Killercool (profile), 5 Feb 2019 @ 8:08am

        Re: Re: what's the downside?

        Wasn't there a suspected serial killer that kept having DNA show up in previously unrelated cases from multiple jurisdictions? FBI thought they had a psycho worse than Gacy, Dahmer, and Manson all in one person.

        Turned out it was a less-than-careful lab tech, who was contaminating all of his samples.

        Now, what if it was DNA from a second-hand jacket? Poor John Brown, convicted serial killer, only guilty of donating to Goodwill.

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

        • icon
          Killercool (profile), 5 Feb 2019 @ 8:13am

          Re: Re: Re: what's the downside?

          My point being, DNA evidence, which should only be used to strengthen a case, is instead being used by prosecutors as primary evidence, and cases built from there. Actual detective work has been discarded in favor of the new gimmick. And juries, indoctrinated by prime time crime shows, eat it up, the "science" overruling all manner of testimony, video, and sometimes the prosecutions' own statements.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2019 @ 1:52pm

        Re: Re: what's the downside?

        And just because your fingerprints were found at a crime scene does not mean you were ever there.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2019 @ 9:40am

      Re: what's the downside?

      Is there a clear, tangible problem with the FBI having access to the data?

      Yes. Law enforcement of all levels have grown very enamored with conducting maximum force/violence raids when they decide there is a "suspect" they need to meet, regardless of whether that is the best approach for apprehending the person. I would rather not have the FBI break into my home before dawn and kill my dogs on the basis that a sample of mine was a partial match to a DNA sample of unknown provenance. Yet nothing in the historical conduct of the FBI, nor any of the statements made here, suggests that won't happen. Until law enforcement demonstrates some responsibility in use of its considerable ability to conduct such assaults, the only solution is to deny them the opportunity to make speculative matches.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2019 @ 9:51am

        Re: Re: what's the downside?

        So the problem isn't with the FBI having access, it's with the way they conduct themselves?

        I hadn't thought of that angle.

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

      • icon
        freedomfan (profile), 5 Feb 2019 @ 8:51pm

        Re: Re: what's the downside?

        Just to be clear, in the unlikely event that "law enforcement demonstrates some responsibility in use of its considerable ability to conduct such assaults", there are still issues with private companies handing the government ever larger pools of customer data in which to conduct fishing expeditions.

        The best thing that could happen here is that FriendsOfTheFBI.com or whoever this company is 1) gets widespread attention for allowing access to customer data to the feds, 2) loses most of its customers, 3) goes out of business, 4) other companies pay close attention to 1) through 3) and realize that their business is better served by putting their customers' interests over those of the feds.

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

    • identicon
      Rog S., 8 Feb 2019 @ 8:51am

      Re: what's the downside?

      Ummmm.

      Yoy said that as if the FBI et alohabet agency is actually the good guys.

      You should read Techdirt.com, and how the Nazis allied themselves with powerful corporations,and then, built databases on people, and went through their family trees, and warehoused them, and seized their assets....

      Oh, wait! That wasnt the Nazis! Thats happening RIGHT NOW all over America!

      https://ibmandtheholocaust.com/

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

  • identicon
    Chris Brand, 5 Feb 2019 @ 11:11am

    If I were the FBI...

    I'd be getting warrants to match against all the people who've opted out of matching. They must have something to hide, right?

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

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2019 @ 12:39pm

    Is the flu vaccine is actually as stealth DNA collection ruse?

    Why else would it be so important to make sure you are vaccinated against LAST YEARS FLU?

    The FBI already has your DNA Bro

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2019 @ 3:27pm

    DNA matching is not the panacea law enforcement would like to think it is and prosecutors would like the jury to think it is.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Feb 2019 @ 3:06am

    I see a world where we all have our DNA stored and analyzed. All of us. Every living human. And we all help each other and learn from each other and support each other. Those of us who have a gene that makes us likely to be fat share our techniques for staying thin. Those of us that are cancer prone share the lifestyle tips of similar genomes that are cancer free. Everyone participates, from birth, in a giant database of self help and mutual support that benefits our entire society one unique individual at a time.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Feb 2019 @ 5:37am

      Re:

      You see all that and yet there is not gene editing, splicing, use of stem cells to regenerate tissue .....

      I find your lack of imagination disturbing.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 6 Feb 2019 @ 9:31pm

        Re: Re:

        What I find disturbing is how little effort is put into the most important research that any of us could benefit from. Studying and learning from our genomic data is probably the most significant thing any human could contribute to human society.

        Consider that at this very moment Facebook and Google and Amazon have the resources to store the entire genomic population of humanity for study. If they simply repurposed their systems and engineers to this problem, focused on gathering the database and put existing technology into production, we could, as a society, accomplish this task during your and my lifetime.

        Instead, we use those resources to sell widgets and call each other bad names and promote political agendas. We are, each one of us, faced with genetic deterioration, minute by minute, day by day, and year by year. We are all facing the same problem. What keeps us from gathering our resources and solving it? It's like some kind of virus that our society (worldwide) is infected with, causing the current societal fever.

        Trump put this at the top of his agenda for the US. He's right. He's right on behalf of all humanity. Even you.

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


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