The popularity of commercial DNA testing companies like AncestryDNA and 23andMe have grown along with their databases of people’s DNA records and now police and law enforcement agencies want access to this genetic data to help solve active criminal cases as well as cold cases. However, genetic records found in commercial genealogy databases are likely to produce a high percentage of false accusations and wrong supects when used in criminal cases.
AncestryDNA has stated publicly that they agreed to give up one person’s DNA data to investigators who were trying to find a person involved in the rape and murder of a young woman from Idaho Falls, Idaho.
23andMe has received four court orders orders over the years for customer DNA records, but, so far, they have successfully resisted such requests. In fact, it was announced just this week that 23andMe has refused a request from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to turn over DNA records from their database.
Both of these companies say that requests from police and other law enforcement agencies for DNA information are not very common. However, privacy-minded people are worried that DNA information submitted to these companies for genealogy research and family medical reasons could be increasingly accessed for criminal investigations.
Investigators currently compare crime scene DNA with genetic records found in a number of government DNA databases. They try to find exact genetic matches by comparing 13 unique locations from a DNA sample with DNA records found in their databases. Legally, this is enough proof to place a person at the scene of a crime.
However, company representatives from AncestryDNA and 23andMe say that their consumer DNA databases wouldn’t be helpful for most criminal investigations since they test areas of DNA that are different than the 13 locations used by criminal investigations. However, criminal investigators still insist on requesting genetic records from these commercial DNA companies to help close cold case files and solve current criminal investigations.
Some forensic DNA experts believe that the legal barriers for obtaining commercial DNA records for criminal investigations should be as difficult as getting permission for a wiretap, since it violates a person’s right to privacy.
Citing personal privacy as one of their main concerns, both AncestryDNA and 23andMe claim that they only supply people’s DNA records to police with a court order. The two companies have stated that they publish public transparency reports that list the number or court orders that they receive from law enforcement departments.
Kate Black, a privacy officer at 23andMe, says that her company has never given up a customer’s DNA data to law enforcement even though the company has received a total of four court orders for the information. According to Black, 23andMe worked to assure criminal investigators that their consumer DNA records wouldn’t help in crime cases and the investigators rescinded their demands.
However, AncestryDNA found itself in the spotlight after news broke that one of the people in their database had been incorrectly identified as a criminal suspect after the company turned over his father’s genetic record to police. In the 1990s, Michael Usry Senior donated his DNA to Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation to help with genealogical research for the Mormon Church.
The Sorenson Foundation’s DNA database, which included records for over 100,00 people, was purchased by Ancestry in 2007. In 2014, police requested Ancestry to run a DNA sample from a murder case against their database. There was a partial match with Michael Usry Senior’s DNA record. However, Michael Sr. was too old to fit the profile of the killer, so police falsely identified his son Michael Usry Jr. as a suspect. Michael Jr. ended up getting interrogated by police for over 6 hours about the murder and giving a blood sample for testing. He was cleared a month later after his DNA did not match the killer’s DNA that was found at the murder scene.
This is one real-world example of how commercial DNA records can make life a living hell for people who are falsely identified as criminal suspects. Unfortunately, due to the limited way commercial DNA services test and match records for genealogy research, there can be a high probability of a “false positive” when trying to establish a DNA link with a criminal case. As a result, using commercial DNA records to help solve criminal cases is a brave new world with lots of potential pitfalls and mistaken identities.