You buy an at-home DNA kit to learn more about your ancestry. You take the test and send in your saliva sample. A short while later, you learn new details about where you are from and who you are connected to. Maybe you find new relatives and begin to form friendships.
What you likely never thought about was how that DNA data is being used. As it turns out, it’s likely been turned over to the FBI.
Family Tree DNA, one of the largest genealogy companies, has been working with the FBI to solve violent crimes. The at-home DNA testing kits enable its customers to trace their ancestry and locate relatives. It also allows Family Tree DNA genealogists to uncover a customer’s background information along with linking them to third and fourth DNA cousins.
Houston-based Family Tree DNA claimed that the access it granted the FBI “would help law enforcement agencies solve violent crimes faster than ever.” For the past two years, the company stated it has voluntarily allowed the FBI to use its laboratories and access the database of its customers.
How does DNA data help FBI agents track down criminals?
By uploading DNA collected from a crime scene to genealogy databases, detectives have been able to locate third or fourth cousins of suspected serial killers and violent criminals. This info can then be used to catch the actual criminal, even if his or her DNA is not in the database. The process was used recently to solve the infamous and long-standing Golden Gate Killer case.
I personally have used a similar family DNA kit to learn more about my background. It never crossed my mind how that DNA data would be used, and what, by sending back my sample, I’m unkowingly consenting to.
I ordered two kits on Mother’s Day last year, one for me and one as a gift for my mother. My mother, too, sent a sample of her saliva to the laboratory without giving it a second thought.
If I knew that my DNA information in the database would potentially help law enforcement locate criminals, then I would happily grant permission. What’s troubling, however, is the lack of transparency. There isn’t an obvious opt-in that explains how my DNA data will be used — and who will ultimately have access.
“All in all, I feel violated, I feel they have violated my trust as a customer,” Leah Larkin, a genetic genealogist based in Livermore, California, told BuzzFeed. “I’ve got to decide whether I want to opt out of matching or delete my kits.”
I’d wager most, like me and my mother, are not aware of how their DNA is being used. It’s not that the concept of using DNA to catch criminals is wrong, it’s that we as consumers are unaware that our private DNA information is being shared without our knowledge.
What’s more, even if I provide consent for a company to share my DNA matches with the FBI, my DNA relatives might not. By
For example, I have DNA matches with 41 distant cousins in California. If I allowed the FBI to access and use my information, then I am giving the FBI consent to link those 41 distant cousins of mine—who I have never met. Their information is then used by the FBI to construct a genealogical tree. My ‘relatives’ would have no idea that their DNA is now in an FBI database.
Below is an example of a third cousin who I matched with:
And this is a photo of my distant cousins throughout the globe:
You can see the giant DNA web you’re leaving by using these services.
Catching criminals at the expense of privacy—and the privacy of distance relatives around the globe—is, therefore, a moral dilemma.
There’s little doubt that by sharing DNA data to catch a dangerous criminal, like in the Golden Gate Killer case, that it’s a trade worth making. But how else could that DNA data be used? What happens if the database is breached? There is potentially more to this than just ‘catching a criminal’.
First and foremost, DNA kit companies need to be more transparent with their customers. If you decide to buy a family DNA kit, then you should be told precisely what happens with that data. It’s a sticky topic, but as with most privacy concerns today, the first step is better transparency.