In March 2017, in the final months of law enforcement’s 40-year hunt for the Golden State Killer, the private genetic testing company FamilyTreeDNA and their parent company, Gene by Gene, were served with a federal subpoena to provide “limited information” on one of their account holders. Investigators were looking for genetic matches between the then-unknown serial killer’s DNA (which had been collected from the crime scenes) and profiles in the company’s public genealogy database, Ysearch, and they’d hit on a partial match. The subpoena required FamilyTreeDNA to disclose the identity associated with the profile, so that law enforcement could look for potential suspects within their genetic line. That particular lead turned out to be a dead end, but a year later, a different public database produced a partial match that ultimately lead to Joseph DeAngelo being identified as GSK.
In the time since, law enforcement has increasingly used this method of “investigative genealogy” in their efforts to solve cold cases and violent crimes, despite criticism from privacy advocates. While many DNA testing companies have assured their customers of their efforts to guard confidential data from law enforcement, Buzzfeed reports that Family Tree DNA has been working with the FBI by voluntarily granting the agency access to their vast database. In a statement to Buzzfeed News, a spokesperson confirmed the arrangement with the FBI and said the company began running DNA samples through its database on a case-by-case basis last fall.
“Without realizing it, [Family Tree DNA founder and CEO Bennett Greenspan] had inadvertently created a platform that, nearly two decades later, would help law enforcement agencies solve violent crimes faster than ever,” the company said in a statement to Buzzfeed.
Until now, law enforcement has been limited to searching public databases in which users have uploaded their genetic data knowing full well that their profiles could be accessed by anyone. Family Tree DNA is the first private DNA testing firm to work directly with law enforcement, and their database contains over one million genetic profiles, the vast majority of which were uploaded before the agreement was made or disclosed.
Reached for comment, a spokesperson for Family Tree DNA told Rolling Stone that the FBI’s access is limited to that of any ordinary user; if a DNA sample from a victim or potential perpetrator matches with any other profile in the database, “then law enforcement must provide FamilyTreeDNA with valid legal process, such as a subpoena or search warrant” to obtain any additional information.
While customers voluntarily upload their own DNA profiles, “investigative genealogy” often uses those profiles to identify close and distant relatives who have never given DNA to a database, a major concern for privacy advocates. Family Tree DNA customers who don’t want their profiles to be searchable by the FBI can opt out of familial matching — but doing so would also prevent them from using the database to search for relatives.
“We are nearing a de-facto national DNA database,” Natalie Ram, an assistant law professor at the University of Baltimore, told BuzzFeed News about her concerns with investigative genealogy. “We don’t choose our genetic relatives, and I cannot sever my genetic relation to them. There’s nothing voluntary about that.”