Ancestry.com Is Sharing Customer DNA Data With Police

Is this a privacy issue? An article by Jay Syrmopoulos for the Free Thought Project at http://goo.gl/JYML8u says: “Would you find it frightening— perhaps even downright Orwellian — to know that a DNA swab that you sent to a company for recreational purposes would surface years later in the hands of police? What if it caused your child to end up in a police interrogation room as the primary suspect in a murder investigation?”

The article is available at http://goo.gl/JYML8u.

Judy Russell recently discussed the details of this case a few days ago in her excellent Legal Genealogist blog at http://legalgenealogist.com/blog/2015/05/03/facts-matter/. I’ll leave it to her to discuss the legal issues involved. However, after reading her article, I am still left with the same two questions above:

1. “Would you find it frightening— perhaps even downright Orwellian — to know that a DNA swab that you sent to a company for recreational purposes would surface years later in the hands of police?”

2. “What if it caused your child to end up in a police interrogation room as the primary suspect in a murder investigation?”

Search warrants or not, I am still not comfortable with my DNA information submitted for genealogy research being used without my knowledge for purposes I never dreamed of.

Opinions?

Update: There is an interesting update to this story on AlterNet that describes the use of entrapment by the police to obtain the suspect’s DNA without his knowledge while he was not represented by legal counsel. The article also quotes Judy Russell: “It’s not very common to see this sort of thing, and I frankly hope it doesn’t become very common because an awful lot of people won’t bother testing.” I agree with Judy.

The article also states:

“Shouldn’t we be able to research and learn about our family’s genealogical ancestry without fear that police will be reviewing our genetic information without our consent?

“This case makes it clear that even when a private business states in writing that your data will be held as private and safe from prying eyes, that may very well not be what transpires.”

The AlterNet article provides thought-provoking reading at http://mobile.slashdot.org/story/15/05/05/229257/police-can-obtain-cellphone-location-records-without-a-warrant.

31 Comments

Deborah Crawford May 6, 2015 at 12:13 pm

There are a number of reasons I am hesitant to spend the money on such a service; this offers one other good reason to decline. In Canada, the insurance companies have very powerful lobbyists, and it’s only a matter of time before folks find that their mortgage insurance, or life insurance, is denied because of predisposition to medical disorders based on DNA findings. Hopefully the privacy commissioner keeps a close eye on this warrant-less acquisition of data.

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    Ahhhh, I hadn’t thought of these possibilities… Thanks for pointing them out. As far as solving a murder or other crime, I think there should be no stone left unturned to solve it within the constraints of any other properly and lawfully gained evidence. But a wholesale hand-over of data just in case it might become useful someday to the police and the courts? No. Definitely not.

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    I am beginning to have reservations about submitting my DNA for genealogical purposes. I am not worried about myself,as at my age there is little time left. I am worried about my children if I submit my DNA. Will they be harms way or subject to Government or Corporate interests if I submit my DNA?

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I believe the DNA was submitted to Sorenson, not Ancestry. I believe a consent form was signed to allow the dna results and Tree info to be publicly displayed.

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    Jim, can you expand on this. Was Sorenson bought out by ancestry? Did Sorenson lab ever have a publicly displayed web site for their clients DNA samples? Who was served with the court order, Sorenson or Ancestry? How did the police find the public sample?

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Is this a privacy issue? Of course it is!

But might the police in some circumstances be able to submit a crime scene spit sample to the genealogical DNA companies as a “new customer”? You get a match and the existing customer anxious to make contact with a “new relative” agrees to exchange details “voluntarily”.

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Watching and waiting May 6, 2015 at 3:02 pm

I don’t know what’s worse – how deceitful you are or how ignorant you are. Your deceptive click-bait headline misses the mark by a mile. Perhaps there was no “warrant”, but there WAS a court order. What would YOU do in the face of a court order?

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    Take your choice: the original article I cited says there was no warrant while Judy Russell’s article says there was a warrant. I tend to believe Judy. HOWEVER, that is irrelevant to the two questions asked. Those two questions remain the same whether a warrant existed or not.

    Another issue is that the private business stated in writing that your data would be held as private and safe from prying eyes and then the company (actually the company that later bought the service) did not do what was promised.

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Watching and waiting May 6, 2015 at 4:01 pm

If ignorance is bliss, you must be in nirvana. The court issued an order; a warrant is simply a specific type of court order. Let’s not confuse the issue by insisting on the use of the specific word “warrant.” Those who refuse to comply with court orders are thrown in jail. Insisting that the company’s “promise” (if what the company said even qualifies as such a thing) trumps the rule of law are naïve, and worse.

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    —> The court issued an order; a warrant is simply a specific type of court order.

    OK, but that doesn’t address the two questions asked in the article. If you submit a DNA sample in order to research your ancestry, do you later want that sample to be used for entirely different purposes that you never intended? By the police? By your insurance company? By drug companies trying to develop new medicines? By your political opponents when you run for office? By your children before or after your death? (I might agree with that last one but suspect not everyone agrees.)

    I am not sure I want any DNA company to store my DNA sample simply because I don’t know what they will use it for in the future, regardless of the legal agreements I signed.

    Liked by 2 people

http://legalgenealogist.com/blog/2015/05/03/facts-matter/
That blog indicates, and has links to source material which would presumably demonstrate, that a court order / warrant WAS in fact issued, which moots most of the concern that this article brings up.

I’d like to see Mr. Eastman find out if this is all true and perhaps issue an update, since his voice carries a lot of weight, and two years from now someone will find this article in a search and then get concerned all over again.

IF the court order thing did happen, IF Ancestry remains true to it’s duty to protect its customers.

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    Judy Russell’s article is an excellent report on the legalities of what happened. However, she did not address the two questions asked in my article as shown above. I will suggest those are still valid questions.

    Liked by 1 person

    I definitely find the whole thing more than a little disturbing. It’s very good to know that the police did get a court order, and that Ancestry didn’t turn over the confidential info without it. I’m actually kind of disturbed that they did the first part of the deal without court order. I would want Ancestry (or any company that I do business with) to always tell the police “I will cooperate if you provide me a court order requiring me to do so, otherwise, have a nice day”

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Dick, I agree with you. I read both of Judy Russell’s articles on this, and posted more or less the same questions you did on her first one. What I think we have here is the law of unintended consequences. Agreements with the Sorensen lab to the contrary, they cannot trump a court order. So, if becoming a suspect in a murder investigation is something you want to avoid, then don’t give anyone your DNA spit. Judy argues that this is more a less a red herring, but still, the innocent man was hauled into the police station nonetheless. I am not comfortable with her explanations of why it was really no big deal.

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There is an interesting update to this story on AlterNet that describes the use of entrapment by the police to obtain the suspect’s DNA without his knowledge while he was not represented by legal counsel. The article also quotes Judy Russell: “It’s not very common to see this sort of thing, and I frankly hope it doesn’t become very common because an awful lot of people won’t bother testing.” I agree with Judy.

The article states:

“Shouldn’t we be able to research and learn about our family’s genealogical ancestry without fear that police will be reviewing our genetic information without our consent?

“This case makes it clear that even when a private business states in writing that your data will be held as private and safe from prying eyes, that may very well not be what transpires.”

The article provides thought-provoking reading at http://mobile.slashdot.org/story/15/05/05/229257/police-can-obtain-cellphone-location-records-without-a-warrant

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According to Judy Russell [quote]:
It is true that the police submitted the crime scene sample to the Sorenson lab — now owned by Ancestry. It’s true that the lab disclosed there were matches, including one close match.

It is not true that the police simply asked Ancestry to hand over the identifying information about the close match and that Ancestry simply gave it to the police when they asked.

What really happened is that the police went to a judge, presented the information that they had, and got a court order directing Ancestry to hand over the identifying information about the match. That’s clear in the New Orleans newspaper story the EFF story is supposed to be based on.7
[Unquote.]

IF the scenario happened this way, the police submitted their blood sample to Sorenson BEFORE they got the court order.

According to the Fourth Amendment:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

IF Judy Russell’s timeline is correct, there was no “probable cause” to get a warrant until AFTER the police submitted the DNA to Sorenson for testing. That’s a bassackward way of creating “probable cause” and then getting a search warrant. Apparently, without the police getting the DNA test done by Sorenson, there was no “probable cause” to get a warrant.

The more pertinent question might be, “Who thought of submitting the DNA test to Sorenson, and Why?” Did the suspect’s family or acquaintances make it known to police that family members had submitted DNA to Sorenson and that was the reason they thought of going through Sorenson to get DNA testing? Why didn’t the police simply subpoena the pertinent suspect’s DNA test via the conventional manner by issuing a search warrant (and not get a DNA test done via Sorenson)? Was there not enough evidence to make a “probable cause” reason for getting a warrant to get a DNA sample? Weren’t there any other ways of getting DNA test results? If not, why go through the backwards system of getting the DNA matches through Sorenson? It sounds to me like that was the only way they could get a “probable cause” reason to get a DNA sample from a likely suspect.

Don’t get me too wrong here. I’m not anti-law enforcement as so many are nowadays (I used to work in law enforcement when I was young). I’m all for getting certain criminals off the streets permanently (particularly child abusers, rapists, pedophiles, murderers, who should all be serving life sentences, IMHO).

But it’s pretty lazy of prosecutors to go through a Genealogy-DNA database to get DNA results or close matches to create probable cause as the basis for a search warrant to compel a DNA test from a suspect.

I suspect this kind of thing would not have happened before the unconstitutional Patriot Act was passed in 2001, when so many of our rights were taken away and/or infringed upon.

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It may not be the issue of what an individual signs, or who is to blame, when the use of information “voluntarily given”, then becomes the property of the holder. It has been proven that when you use a cellphone, your information become the “intellectual property” of the entity of the person providing the equipment, capital and resources to provide you with such a service.

When you use a credit card, your information is sold, for a profit, to those who want to “track your buying habits” so that they can send you advertising.

ANYTIME you voluntarily give personal information, to a service provider, there are ALWAYS clauses affixed, written or implied, that this information is their own intellectual property.

It is bad enough, right now, to have to worry about our own government, who may or may not be creating a “know all bank” on every individual in the USA. J. Edgar Hoover did it and got away with it until his death. Whose to say his program has become enhanced, in the name of justice. Fine for criminal investigations, yes they need all the help they can get, but within the scope of what is left of our constitutional rights.

It is MY OPINION, that it is the unscrupulous hackers who threaten our rights and privacy, as they have the opportunity to sell for profit or personal gain the information viewed or collected in their invasions of electronic databases of banks, chain stores, and even our government entities. (and the government are not required to make notice of any breeches of their databases).

It is MY OPINION that there are so many anti-government and foreign government hacker bases always trying, if not already successful, in obtaining our personal information, that we have intrusted to so many, blindly. Nowadays, we need to protect ourselves from those entities, who are ALWAYS-meaning every day occurrences-trying to topple and over throw our government and our amenities that we currently enjoy. We must protect ourselves from the future, for our families past, present and future.

I do not believe that the “scientific calculations” used in determining ancestry through DNA can always be accurate. They are not obtaining actual samples from our previous ancestors, and therein making “Ancestry through DNA” a theory, just like so many beliefs of our origins, (i., e.,) Darwin’s Theory and The Big Bang Theory, Theories, not substantiated proof. Sorry but this Ancestry by DNA is a selling tool, for revenue and collection of personal data, for what has the potential for another Holocaust of the future.

I have had enough on my personal plate for my own actions in my life time. The future is something I do not want on my mind now, or to be written about posthumously.

The worst case scenario,is tracing our ancestors, who may have been criminals or subversives to a government, and having our names “put on a watch list” for potential combatants of any government. We all deserve to have our place in history, all I want is a headstone. That’s what we live for, that is all I want.

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Any of your data about anything will be passed over by the people running the servers if the state comes calling with a big enough warrant / court order. That’s one of the risks with cloud computing – if you have the sort of agreement that means your data could be hosted anywhere, then you have no understanding of what the confidentiality rules are where your data is. Or how “nice” the state is.

So to suddenly start worrying about your DNA, when your other stuff has always been at risk, is missing a point.

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We live in Orwell’s “Brave New World” he just got the year wrong. [ OK, I know I’m mixing books here ] Any one that expects privacy lives in a fantasy world. There is no such thing today. Don’t believe me just Google your own name. Public records are still public records. They are just easier to obtain today than ever before in history. Just because your paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

Way back in the gestation period of genetic DNA Dick posted an article about donating a sample to the Church of Latter Day Saints with a four generation tree. Pretty much they idea was to see if DNA was a viable genealogy tool. They took a vial of blood. There was no expectation, or promise, of any results ever being available. The samples were taken to Sorenson Labs for testing. Some years later an offer was made to sell us our results at a very reasonable price, Y and MTdna for about seventy five dollars. That got us on Wikitree. Wikitree was then “bought” by Ancestry. [ which completely trashed what was happening on Wikitree and made it into a joke ]

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    The “Brave New World” was Aldous Huxley’s. Orwell’s world was “1984.”

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    —> That got us on Wikitree. Wikitree was then “bought” by Ancestry. [ which completely trashed what was happening on Wikitree and made it into a joke ]

    I think you may have confused WikiTree with GeneTree. WikiTree was formed by and is still owned by Chris Whitten and has little to do with DNA. You can check it out at http://www.wikitree.com at any time. GeneTree was formed as a subsidiary of the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation which now has become a provider to Ancestry DNA. Genetree.com was discontinued on January 1, 2013 and has been offline since that time.

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I don’t have time now to read all of the comments, but I was railing about this months ago and was called all sorts of names for even suggesting it would happen. II also think that if anyone close, such as siblings, parents,children, had their DNA tested, it also would be an invasion of my privacy.
Think about the 20th century and wonder what the world would look like today if DNA was freely available to the powers that be.

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Dick – to your questions:
1. Frightening – somewhat. But this could be said for a host of other data (SSN, Medical, CC numbers, where we travel, what we buy, what we say, video footage everywhere we go, etc) that the government AND businesses AND hackers are storing now.
2. My child – worry some. But so much other data (see #1) will be available about my child, that a genealogy DNA report will pale.
Son: don’t do the crime…

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Thinking on from Bev Anderson’s comment

We need to know where we draw the line – and the problem is we all draw it in different places!

I work on the basis that if I post something (an opinion, a fact, a DNA analysis) it is like posting it through a letter box – you can’t get your hand back in there to pull it out – it’s gone from your control. So I would be very wary of allowing my DNA to be analysed.

Yet people want to “breakdown brick walls” in their hunt for the next ancestor back or the next cousin forwards and seem to willingly hand over something that is pretty much as unique to them as anything else.

They may give it to a Genealogical DNA company with certain expectations of privacy, but I very much doubt that I in the UK could individually enforce any such rights against say Ancestry in the USA.

Besides the whole idea is that if you get a “match” you will follow it up – you won’t do due diligence on a match just in case it is DCI Plod who submitted a murder scene sample in the hope of catching the perpetrator. The whole idea is that your privacy is weakened – it would not work otherwise.

So is it then wrong for a police force to submit such samples (if it can get suitable samples from a crime scene) in the hope of netting someone? It is probably against the terms and conditions of the Genealogical DNA company but is it illegal? In the UK it may involve the offences of “holding out” (that you are someone else), “false representation” or even “fraudulent misrepresentation”, but you have got to be caught, and if the complainant has just been arrested for some crime I doubt that he will get a particularly sympathetic hearing – despite any rights that he should have.

The USA believes that its writ runs worldwide and in the UK we have seen people heaved off to clink in the USA with no prior hearing of the facts of the case (just an extradition hearing) in the UK. Then in a foreign jurisdiction you are told you can rot in jail for years awaiting trial or do a plea bargain and be home in two. Even the innocent can see how those scales are balanced.

I don’t want to find that “my new relative” is actually Huntsville CSI and that they want me for some murder committed in Texas. I have never been there but under a pen-name have made critical remarks about aspects of the criminal justice system in Texas.

So irrespective of the services Terms and Conditions and any legal regulations, I shall do my best to keep my DNA to myself – and any offspring that I choose to have.

But why the interest in Genealogical DNA – particularly autosomal – unless there is an adoption or similar within a few generations?
At the April Who Do You Think You Are Exhibition in Birmingham (the original place) it was remarked that due to the random nature of inheritance apart from your Y-Chromosome and your mtDNA there is very little certainty. So in theory you could have none of your paternal grandmother’s DNA and none of your maternal grandfather’s DNA. Highly unlikely but as you go back through the generations the more likely it is that you have not inherited DNA from a particular ancestor outside the direct male or direct female line. Tony Robinson (of Blackadder and Time Team fame) was presenting and expressed surprise that despite family stories he had no Jewish Ancestry – according to his DNA. Your genetic DNA is a subset of your ancestry – and without being able to test your ancestors you can’t tell which subset (excluding Y- and mt)!

So when we “do genealogy” what do we actually mean? Traditionally we have traced up and down the generations based on assertions about parentage and that has proved a very interesting past-time for many of us. Or are we only going to be interested in those from whom we have inherited genetic material?

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I find it appalling that the blatantly false headlines from the EFF article are being picked up in so many places. Many people don’t trouble to read beyond the headlines.

This following information is all outlined in the warrant issued in New Orleans to obtain a DNA sample from Michael Usry.

https://www.eff.org/document/new-orleans-search-warrant-dna-idaho-falls-murder-case

The police submitted a semen sample from the crime scene to a commercial laboratory, Sorenson Forensics, to obtain markers on the Y chromosome (which typically follows the surname line, of interest to genealogists). Sorenson Forensics is not a genealogy company, and the police could have obtained the results from other commercial laboratories. The police do not need a warrant to have various types of crime scene evidence analyzed.

Once they had the results, they consulted an OPEN ACCESS database at Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation http://smgf.org. Sorenson Forensics and SMGF are distinct entities. SMGF was a non-profit organization subsidized by James LeVoy Sorenson. The police were looking for close matches in hopes of identifying a surname for the unknown subject. They could just as well have searched the open access database sponsored by Family Tree DNA, http://ysearch.org.

The SMGF database privatizes the most recent generations of ancestry. The police then submitted a warrant to Ancestry.com, which acquired the SMGF database, in order to obtain the identifying information of the donor.

In my opinion as an experienced genetic genealogist, the correlation of the Y DNA results with a specific surname is somewhat weak, but police often follow many kinds of leads that don’t pan out. Moreover, the DNA was not the only consideration, since other pieces of circumstantial evidence were included in the request for the warrant. Usry was then exonerated by a test that can uniquely identify an individual.

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In 2008 I sent my sample to SORENSON. Did Not know that Ancestry now owned that place. Of course, it did not inform me of any ancestral matches. That was not the purpose of that collection at that time.
I was considering having Ancestry do my Genealogical matches at this time. This makes me less inclined to do so.
The Canadian system needs to be set up the make sure this cannot not happen here.
Is this only an Ancestry one time thing, or will the police now start compelling all other such DNA collectors, like the National Geographic, to open up their data bases to this possibility?

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I have not had DNA testing done … and I will not. But, not because I fear it will end up in police hands. I believe we will be at the mercy (if they had any) of corporate interests regarding our predisposition to medical disorders. Doesn’t matter if you actually have a particular disorder, just being predisposed will be enough to eliminate you from medical coverage, etc. Of course, right now I supposedly have medical coverage … except they will not pay for the medication my doctor has prescribed … so maybe I need to rethink this. The corporate interests are finding so many ways to “work” us over, maybe DNA is a drop in the bucket.

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Dick, You are absolutely correct. It was Genetree and not Wikitree. Wikitree is still a good idea as far as I’m concerned.

Tenn Tuxedo, I did say I was “mixing my books.” We do live in a “Brave New World” and Orwell did get the year wrong. “Big Brother” didn’t really come until some years after 1984. We certainly have him now. [ END of my political rantings. ]

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This headline will live on forever no matter what is printed next.

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My uncle ordered popovers
from the restaurant’s bill of fare.
And, when they were served,
he regarded them with a penetrating stare.
Then he spoke great words of wisdom
as he sat there on that chair:
“To eat these things,” said my uncle,
“You must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what’s solid,
but you must spit out the air!”
And as you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
that’s darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
And be careful what you swallow.
― Dr. Seuss

Liked by 1 person

Michael J Fitzpatrick April 21, 2017 at 12:14 pm

To be frank, I don’t really have an issue with police being able to subpoena this information. It’s got nothing to do with privacy. It’s like trying to say that the police can’t look at your face as a means of identification because it’s invading your privacy. Both are measures of your physical body and should you abide by the laws of the land, you will have nothing to worry about. DNA alone is never enough to find someone guilty of a crime if there are other mitigating circumstances such as lack of any other collaborative evidence. If you’re worried that there’s really a serious risk of an Orwellian type big brother situation being in place in your nation anytime soon, then go move to another country where such things are not possible. You’ll have much bigger issues than your DNA being on file if that is the case. If you really felt your DNA was meant to retain a level of privacy you should spend your day walking around in a csi suit to prevent any of your hairs or dying skin cells inadvertently ending up in the wrong hands. You should never leave a used condom in a bin for fear of your DNA being collected. You should also filter water coming of all of your outlets to make sure if the same. In my opinion, privacy and your biometrics are not related. If you have any real interest in having an effective justice system then providing resources to speed up the ruling out of all law abiding citizens has to be a positive thing. I don’t believe those who say it’s a privacy issue, as they’re not really interested in true justice, they’re only interested in justice that’s convenient for them. This privacy argument is like an insurance policy should you decide later in life that you want to commit crime and so reduce the likelihood of being caught. That’s all it is in my opinion. I doubt anyone will read this, but I enjoyed getting through that thought process myself and delving into the reason behind it.

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