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A Warrant for Your DNA

At a recent police convention in Chicago, a Florida detective noted that he was able to secure a warrant to search the full GEDmatch consumer genetic database, despite privacy changes made to the site earlier this year, The New York Times reports.

In an effort to solve a serial rape case going back decades, Orlando Police Department Detective Michael Fields requested a warrant "that would let him override the privacy settings of GEDmatch's users and search the site's full database of 1.2 million users," Kashmir Hill and Heather Murphy write. A Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida judge approved that warrant in July, and the detective was able to access the site soon after, though no arrests have been made from the genetic leads that turned up.

Although GEDmatch has been tapped by law enforcement in the past, leading to a high-profile arrest in the Golden State Killer case, the site has changed its terms and conditions — theoretically making it possible for users to opt out of police searches.

"After a revolt by a group of prominent genealogists, GEDmatch changed its policies in May," Hill and Murphy explain. "It required law enforcement agents to identify themselves when searching its database, and it gave them access only to the profiles of users who had explicitly opted in to such queries."

The Times noted that some 185,000 GEDmatch users opted to participate in such searches, representing a fraction of the more than 1 million individuals with genetic information on the site. With the recent warrant, though, DNA from all GEDmatch users are up for scrutiny.

Sources told the NYT that the successful GEDmatch warrant sets a precedent that could spill over to larger, and traditionally less accessible, consumer genetic databases such as and 23andMe, though that may hinge to some extent on responses from the public. 

"DNA policy experts said the development is likely to encourage other agencies to request similar search warrants from 23andMe, which has 10 million users, and, which has 15 million," Hill and Murphy note. "If that comes to pass, the Florida judge's decision will affect not only the users of these sites, but huge swaths of the population, including those who have never taken a DNA test."

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