Home DNA test company courts controversy with FBI partnership

Home gene testing company Family Tree DNA is working with the FBI and providing access to its genealogy database for violent crime investigations, BuzzFeed News reports.

Family Tree has been testing and uploading samples provided by the FBI on a case-by-case basis since last fall, though it does not have a contract with the agency. A company spokesperson said the partnership “would help law enforcement agencies solve violent crimes faster than ever.” Agents receive the same information as would be available to any normal user, and must provide a valid court-order for any additional information, the company says.

BuzzFeed points out that genealogy databases have been used by law enforcement for years to identify suspects, including the suspected Golden State Killer. The voluntary granting of access to a private company’s data is new, however. Previously, public and free databases used voluntarily by genealogy enthusiasts were the source material for investigator’s searches.

Some customers expressed a sense of betrayal that the company had not provided notification of its work with the FBI, and privacy advocates say such systems can identify people who have not voluntarily submitted their DNA. Family Tree changed its terms of service to allow law enforcement to search for suspects of violent crime in December, 2018.

“We are nearing a de-facto national DNA database,” University of Baltimore Assistant Law Professor Natalie Ram, who specializes in bioethics and criminal justice, told BuzzFeed News. “We don’t choose our genetic relatives, and I cannot sever my genetic relation to them. There’s nothing voluntary about that.”

The FBI recently opened an Investigative Genealogy Unit, which is led by attorney Steve Kramer of the agency’s Los Angeles office.

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