People add their genetic data to genealogy DNA databanks in the hope of tracing long-lost relatives, biological parents and so on. They don’t expect their genomes to be accessed by the police. Yet officials in the US have used “investigative genetic genealogy” in more than 100 cases. One genetic testing company, Family Tree DNA, has had to apologize to users for sharing data with the FBI.
The attraction of such databases to law enforcement is clear. Just 3 million profiles from a particular population will generate a match with a third cousin or closer for 90 per cent of DNA samples. With a match, police can use public records to build family trees and home in on people who fit the suspect’s age, location and even physical appearance. They can even collect biological material from non-suspects without alerting them, the material to be retained in police databases as so-called “abandoned” DNA.
These DNA searches jeopardise privacy in several ways. It takes only a relatively small number of profiles to effectively waive the genomic privacy of hundreds of millions of people. An investigator who looks at the records of dozens of people linked by biology – even if they aren’t linked to each other in the real world in any way – will learn a lot of private information, with the obvious potential for abuse.
In a new twist, police in Florida recently obtained a warrant to search all GED match’s opted-out profiles, causing disquiet among direct-to-consumer genomic testing firms. Such services hold the data of millions of people who have had their genomes screened, whether for genealogical or health reasons. Since US privacy laws are anaemic, the least well-resourced DNA companies may prove attractive targets to the FBI and police.
More controls are urgently needed. The 21st Century Cures Act, enacted by the US Congress in 2016, created a legal protection known as a “certificate of confidentiality” to prevent law enforcement from accessing sensitive information collected to advance medical knowledge. Similar protection could be extended to recreational genetics
The Department of Justice is currently working on a set of regulatory restrictions in order to beef up “anaemic” privacy laws, but the distaste for regulation may mean nothing much happens. (Based on an edited article by Erin Murphy, New Scientist, Nov 16 2019).
All who support or subscribe to Epicurean thought should be alarmed by the fact that modern technology is being used to track us and build secret databases on our lives. It took massive effort and manpower on the part of tyrants like Hitler and Stalin to create “ Big Brother” systems of suppressing free comment and thought. The new technology is quite easily and cheaply used. It’s relatively easy to misuse it. For every advance there is always a group eagerly casting aside ethical behavior.