Over the past several years, consumer DNA testing companies like Ancestry and 23andMe have grown in popularity as people have been eager to discover what parts of the world make up who they are individually and create a personalized family tree out of it. But, with privacy being a high priority in societies, it’s led to some weariness and speculation around the globe about the use of this information within law enforcement.
It’s worth mentioning that all of these DNA companies were not built the same. For now, it seems the most popular companies (we’ll stick with Ancestry, 23andMe and Family Tree DNA) will be a tough nut to crack for law enforcement to obtain information that compromises the freedom and privacy of their consumers. But it is possible.
For those concerned about their privacy when testing their DNA, Ancestry says “Contents of communications and any data relating to the DNA of an Ancestry user will be released only pursuant to a valid search warrant from a government agency with proper jurisdiction.” Ancestry also expressed the user will be made aware of this request of their information, unless prohibited not to do so. 23andMe and Family Tree DNA have also expressed the same assurance.
The easiest access law enforcement has to citizens’ DNA data is through a free website, GEDmatch. The way GEDmatch works is, after someone receives their results from well-known companies (Ancestry, 23andMe, Family Tree DNA), he or she can upload their data to GEDmatch to “match” with other relatives who have done the same. This structure allows it to be considered public information because of the free and “at-will” aspects. GEDmatch gained significant attention when law enforcement used its data to solve a cold case that led to the arrest of the Golden State Killer, a suspect who committed at least 13 murders, over 50 rapes and 100 burglaries in California from 1974 to 1986.
These genealogical connections can be made even through related cousins, which is precisely how this serial killer was found, and it doesn’t take long. Although, this can definitely lead to solved cases that would appease many citizens, it opens the door for exposure in other areas some may not consider.
According to an interview of a genealogy detective on CNN, law enforcement will continue to use GEDmatch as a reliable source for DNA evidence as it continues to grow.