DNA Company Accidentally Exposes Opted Out Users' Data To Law Enforcement

from the apparently-the-software-does-not-approve-of-your-decision dept

A couple of years ago, investigators in California used a DNA matching service to track down the so-called "Golden State Killer." Uploading a sample of the suspected serial murder's DNA, they were able to identify distant relatives of the suspect. Using these sentient clues, investigators eventually worked their way back to the suspected killer, who had eluded authorities for years.

Shortly after this made news, GEDmatch informed users that law enforcement had never approached the company directly to acquire this information. Instead, investigators created an account and uploaded samples, bypassing anything GEDmatch might have had in place to limit use by government agencies. GEDmatch said the only way customers could ensure their DNA info wouldn't be obtained by law enforcement was to not use the service at all.

A month later, it went a step further. It opted all users out of allowing law enforcement to access their DNA data. Users were allowed to opt in if they were comfortable with the government digging through their information. This somewhat solved the problem. But law enforcement has been known to create faux profiles to search DNA data, so opting out isn't guaranteed to stop cops from accessing this info.

Unfortunately, something recently went very wrong with GEDmatch's database.

[U]sers reported Sunday that those settings had changed without their permission, and that their DNA profiles were made available to law enforcement searches.

Users called it a “privacy breach.” But when reached, the company’s owner declined to say if the issue was caused by an error or a security breach, citing an ongoing investigation.

This incident/error opted everyone in to law enforcement access. The company still isn't sure what happened. The statement issued by the CEO says the problem is "resolved" but the company has taken the site offline until it can determine what actually happened.

The site is still down as of the time of writing (July 20th). GEDmatch hasn't offered any further statement on the matter, either. It also has refused to say whether any law enforcement requests to the service were received or responded to while everyone was temporarily opted in.

The larger problem remains, however. GEDmatch's default is opt out, which is best for its users. But it's unclear whether GEDmatch polices its service for bogus accounts possibly be used by… well, police. GEDmatch only requires an email address for registration. It says you must link a "real name" to uploaded DNA data but nothing in its terms of service indicates this name must be verified before the site can be searched for matches. This means opting out is only as good as the law enforcement agencies using the service. If they can't be trusted then GEDmatch probably can't be trusted either.

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Filed Under: data, data breach, dna, law enforcement, privacy, surveillance
Companies: gedmatch


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jul 2020 @ 6:15am

    It also has refused to say whether any law enforcement requests to the service were received or responded to while everyone was temporarily opted in.

    You know, I thought I heard a warrant canary dying a little while back...


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