At-home DNA testing site FamilyTreeDNA — which was widely criticized for working with the FBI without telling its customers — will now offer users the option to prevent law enforcement from accessing their data.
In January, BuzzFeed News reported that FamilyTreeDNA let law enforcement create profiles on the site using DNA from unsolved cases. The agencies then used those profiles to look for possible matches in the company’s genetic database. Now, users will be able to opt out of matching with accounts created for this purpose, FamilyTreeDNA said in an email, as first reported by New Scientist. Law enforcement will have to go through a special process to use the database, and customers that opt out will still be able to match with other non-law enforcement users on the site.
In the past year, there has been an increasing number of crimes solved using DNA databases. Most notably, law enforcement solved the Golden State Killer case last April by comparing decades-old crime scene DNA to profiles on the public genealogy website GEDMatch. Investigators uploaded the 37-year-old DNA to a fake account on GEDMatch. While the Golden State Killer didn’t have a profile, law enforcement did find the DNA matches of relatives, which was enough to narrow down the suspects and make an arrest. Since then, familial DNA testing has grown even more powerful and could possibly cover the entire population with a relatively small database.
Though GEDMatch is a public database, all of this has raised privacy concerns about how private databases — like those operated by 23andMe and Ancestry.com — will be used. Both sites have said that they do not cooperate with law enforcement, and FamilyTreeDNA was the first known case of a private firm working with law enforcement.
Meanwhile, other studies have suggested that it’s simplistic to make sweeping pronouncements about what people are willing and not willing to accept when it comes to “genetic privacy” because it’s a multifaceted concept that can involve different trade-offs depending on the situation. Some people, for example, are fine with law enforcement having their DNA to solve crimes, but they’re not okay with their DNA being shared with pharmaceutical companies. The move by FamilyTreeDNA is an acknowledgment that, as we continue to figure out what is and isn’t ethical, it’s important to at least let customers know what is being done with their genetic data.