Another example of doing the right thing for the wrong reason came from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference in Chicago held October 26-30, 2019. Detective Michael Fields of the Orlando Police Department shared how the 9th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida had approved a warrant for him to search a private corporation’s ancestry database for DNA evidence relevant to an unsolved case.
The IACP Annual Conference & Expo is “a platform, where you will have exclusive access to law enforcement’s leading tacticians, veteran experts, and equipment suppliers, as well as thousands of your fellow chiefs and future leaders.”
Det. Fields gave a presentation about how he got the unprecedented state judicial warrant to track down a cold case criminal by searching over a million records in the GEDmatch database, which contains the DNA profiles uploaded voluntarily by people who want to research their family trees.
After Fields’ talk, many of his peers wanted in on this new way to pierce a big chink in the protective wall of public privacy. Logan Koepke, “a policy analyst at Upturn, a nonprofit in Washington that studies how technology affects social issues, was in the audience. He told the [New York] Times that after his talk, Fields was approached by a number of detectives and officers who wanted to get a copy of the warrant.”
GEDmatch co-founder Curtis Rogers said his company had 1.3 million users as of the beginning of November.
A new section explains that user DNA may be surrendered to law enforcement officials for “Familial searching by third parties such as law enforcement agencies to identify the perpetrator of a crime, or to identify remains.”
Fields sought the court-ordered warrant to locate “distant relatives of a serial rapist in hopes that their family trees could help him home in on a suspect—even though most of the 1.3 million people who have shared their DNA data with the site haven’t agreed to such a search.”
Privacy advocates believe the Florida judge has set a dangerous precedent by allowing cops access to all information provided voluntarily for genealogical research. Extended family members are also at risk if their personal information – including a DNA hair sample from a brush – was uploaded by another family genealogist to a company that helps trace back genetic lines of ancestry.
Of additional concern is the possibility that judges will allow similar police searches of extensive direct-to-consumer DNA web-based services such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe that are now closed to everyone except clients who submit a voluntary saliva sample.
GEDmatch is a free service that lets users locate relatives from uploaded DNA profiles received from 23andMe, Ancestry.com, and other genealogy-tracing data sources. Data collected by GEDmatch – information now in jeopardy of secret police inspection – includes:
- Your DNA
- DNA of a person for whom you are a legal guardian
- DNA of a person who has granted you specific authorization to upload their DNA to GEDmatch
- DNA of a person known by you to be deceased
- DNA obtained and authorized by law enforcement to identify a perpetrator of a violent crime against another individual, where ‘violent crime’ is defined as murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, aggravated rape, robbery, or aggravated assault
- DNA obtained and authorized by law enforcement to identify remains of a deceased individual
- An artificial DNA kit (if and only if: (1) it is intended for research purposes; and (2) it is not used to identify anyone in the GEDmatch database)
- DNA obtained from an artifact (if and only if: (1) you have a reasonable belief that the Raw Data is DNA from a previous owner or user of the artifact rather than from a living individual; and (2) that previous owner or user of the artifact is known to you to be deceased)
New York University law professor Erin Murphy underscored the real significance of the Florida judgment to warrant police access to GEDmatch users’ private data:
“The company made a decision to keep law enforcement out, and that’s been overridden by a court. It’s a signal that no genetic information can be safe.”
This state judgment bodes ill for everyone who voluntarily provided DNA samples to companies that use information stored in their computer databases to research family trees.
Don’t like the dangerous precedent set in Florida that lets cops snoop into your family’s private information – including genetic DNA identifiers? Speak out to your elected officials that this legally-sanctioned activity violates our Constitutional Fourth Amendment.