from the PREMISES-TO-BE-SEARCHED:-the-whole-thing dept
Third-party DNA services have become one of law enforcement’s new investigative tools. Companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe have collected massive amounts of DNA data and personal info, and cops have used these databases to solve cold cases and identify suspects they may have overlooked during investigations.
As this use of private DNA databases has become more widespread, some services have tightened up their access. Law enforcement started pushing and it was finally time to start pushing back. In addition to creating fake profiles to upload DNA samples to match against databases, law enforcement officers have also obtained court orders demanding full access to these databases to peruse at will.
One company, FamilyTreeDNA, has welcomed this new interest from non-customers, allowing government agencies to treat its database as one of their own. Most other DNA companies have gone the other way, restricting access to personal info and DNA matches by requiring legitimate, narrowly-crafted court orders and warrants before turning over info to law enforcement.
Ancestry.com is one of the more restrictive companies. Its “Guide for Law Enforcement” makes it clear it will challenge any court order or warrant it believes is overly-broad. The wording may seem a bit antagonistic, but it’s probably the only language law enforcement understands. Law enforcement prefers to communicate vaguely and exoneratively, which lowers its exposure to harmful things like the rights of others and personal accountability. So, if Ancestry’s language is brusque, it’s only because it’s necessary.
Ancestry does not voluntarily cooperate with law enforcement. To provide our Users with the greatest protection under the law, we require all government agencies seeking access to Ancestry customers’ data to follow valid legal process and do not allow law enforcement to use Ancestry’s services to investigate crimes or to identify human remains.
Some unnamed law enforcement agency recently experienced this lack of cooperation firsthand, as Peter Aldhous reports for BuzzFeed.
Ancestry.com, the largest DNA testing company in the world, was served a search warrant to give police access to its database of some 16 million DNA profiles, but the company did not comply.
“Ancestry received one request seeking access to Ancestry’s DNA database through a search warrant,” the company revealed in its 2019 transparency report released last week. “Ancestry challenged the warrant on jurisdictional grounds and did not provide any customer data in response.”
There are no further details in the transparency report, but comments given to BuzzFeed by Ancestry suggest the warrant sought open-ended access to the company’s database. That’s definitely something companies shouldn’t be offering to law enforcement agencies. The unnamed law enforcement agency will have to take its fishing line to a competitor more willing to abuse the trust of its customers.