News that law enforcement was able to access DNA data and identity information around the data has raised concerns about the privacy rights of consumers using services provided by firms such as genealogy firm Accestry.com.
According to Electronic Frontier Foundation, Ancestry.com recently shared information from its vast database of DNA information with Idaho police without consent from its users, a development that the non-profit civil liberties organization said "details the very real threats to privacy and civil liberties posed by law enforcement access to private genetic databases and familial DNA searching."
In 1996, Angie Dodge was found murdered in her apartment in Idaho. While DNA was collected from semen at the crime scene, it has never been matched to an existing profile in any criminal database, and the case has remained unsolved for almost 20 years.
Then in early 2014, Idaho law enforcement reopened the case, but instead of trying to match the 1996 semen sample with samples from criminal databases, they sent the sample to a laboratory associated with the Sorenson Database, which is owned by Ancestry.com. The police asked the lab to run the crime scene DNA against the database of more than 100,000 DNA samples and found 41 potential familial matches, including one in which 34 of 35 alleles matched.
The police then got a court order forcing Ancestry.com to disclose personal information about the matches, including full names and birthdays. Eventually, they settled on Michael Usry, Jr., a filmmaker living in New Orleans, as a suspect in the 1996 murder.
In the course of their investigation, the Idaho police found that Usry had some Facebook friends living in Idaho, and also determined that Usry's short films "'dealt with some sort of homicide or killings," the New Orleans Advocate reports.
Usry was eventually cleared in the case, but the incident has troubled some observers about potential implications for the privacy rights of consumers undergoing familial DNA testing with firms like Ancestry.com.
New York University law school professor Erin Murphy tells the New Orleans Advocate that the case is the first she knows of in which law enforcement used a publicly accessible database to get a lead in an investigation. While the police tactics were "totally reasonable" in her opinion, it, nonetheless "has this really Orwellian state feeling to it, and it is a huge indictment of private genetic testing companies and the degree to which people seamlessly share that information online."
Ancestry.com says in its privacy statement that it may disclose personal information to third parties in certain circumstances, such as "may be required or permitted by law, regulatory authorities, [and] legal process."
On the blog Hit & Run, Ronald Bailey calls himself a "genetic exhibitionist" who has posted his genotype screening test results online, so he would have only himself to blame if police authorities use that information against him. "However, private genetic testing services had better keep their customers' data private and safe, or soon they may have have no clients," he says.
Jennifer Lynch, writing for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says that Usry's example "exposes the real danger posed to privacy and civil liberties by familial DNA searches and by private unregulated DNA databases.
"People should be able to learn about their ancestors and relatives and about possible risks for genetic diseases without fear that their data will be shared with the cops without their consent," she says.