Does Your Cousin’s DNA Make You a Suspect?

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Remember when genealogy was a specialist industry? When it would cost thousands of dollars to uncover your family history, as well as countless hours poring over dusty tomes in the back of the local library to find a missing branch of the family tree? You probably also remember the explosion of interest in genealogy in the mid-2000’s, where countless websites appeared, each one dedicated to helping you uncover your family history.

The uptake was rapid. Good sites were sorted from bad, and user-bases grew. Over the same time period, the cost of DNA sequencing tests fell exponentially, allowing a number of the most popular websites to invite their users to send their own DNA for genealogical tracing, medical diagnostic tests, and ultimately storage in centralized, site-specific databases. At the time, privacy advocates warned against the creation of giant, centralized genetic databases.

Cost per Megabase of DNA Sequence

Now, as law enforcement agencies knock on genealogy website-doors, it looks as if those advocates were right on the money.

Massive Uptake

Online genealogy is now a multi-billion dollar industry, stretching the four-corners of the globe. There isn’t a country on Earth without at least one genealogical expert (though I’m sure there are plenty without the plethora of genealogy websites). The biggest sites have slowly swallowed up the competition, along with their databases.

Estimated Number of Genealogists English Speaking Countries

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The most competitive websites now offer genealogical tracing and medical diagnostic tests on your own DNA to further your research into your family tree. Excellent for those searching; equally alluring to law enforcement agencies looking to add to their own DNA databases. Websites 23andMe and Ancestry.com both have over one million customers, while MyHeritage boasts over 80 million.

Of course, not all of these members have had their DNA sequenced — but the allure of those that have has proven too much for the law to ignore.

Exposed By The Family DNA

Like most major law enforcement agencies around the world, the FBI maintains its own genetic database containing samples from thousands upon thousands of individuals, built over decades, but it is by no means exhaustive. By its very nature, a law enforcement genetic database is limited to a certain scope, and many law abiding individuals will always remain, naturally, outside of the scope of the authorities.

This limited scope, and the natural growth of alternate private genealogy databases has understandably piqued the interest of law enforcement agencies, who last year made their first request of Ancestry.com. Despite having convicted an individual for a 1996 murder, the Idaho Falls Police Department faced national media attention amid claims of false imprisonment; DNA from the crime scene failed to match suspects, nor the millions of individuals already profiled in the national database.

In 2015, investigators changed tact, turning their thoughts to a technique known as familial searching, a technique that seeks to identify a potential suspect’s surname through DNA analysis focusing on the Y-chromosome. The Idaho Falls Police Department issued Ancestry.com a subpoena requesting access to their DNA database, specifically looking at the protected Y-chromosome, which in turn uncovered a promising “partial match” between a semen sample found at the scene of the crime, and a Michael Usry Sr.

While the finding immediately ruled Michael Usry Sr. out, it strongly suggested the perpetrator was a close relative, and prompted investigators to explore five generations of Usry males. The search was eventually narrowed down to Michael Usry, son of Michael Usry Sr. The police took a new DNA swab, and the waiting game was underway.

One month elapsed, and finally, Usry was acquitted. Sgt. James Hoffman, of the Idaho Falls Police Department said:

“All of the circumstantial evidence was right…He seemed like a really good candidate. But we’ve had that happen before…It turned out to be nothing…I wish it wasn’t a dead end, but it was”

The lead had only come about as Michael Usry Sr. had provided a saliva swab to the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation years before. The database containing the swab, provided as part of a Mormon-sponsored project, was acquired by Ancestry.com, a company whose privacy policy stipulates that it will cooperate with law enforcement agencies if served with a court order. So while Michael Usry Sr. had provided his sample in good faith, he would have had little indication of the final destination of his saliva, and certainly couldn’t have anticipated its use in a criminal investigation years later.

Changing Genealogy Landscape

This single case illustrates the potential pitfalls awaiting individuals providing delicate private information to private businesses. The Idaho Falls Police Department had enough probable cause to follow up their lead, take an additional swab, and wait for analysis. But where should the line between private citizen and public safety be drawn?

Searching additional DNA databases has a distinctly Orwellian feel to it, with techniques such as familial searching drastically expanding the search-scope of the state. Defendants are already required to provide a DNA sample upon arrest, and will be added to the national database for cross-analysis. This is the expected practice, and I’m sure there are few arguments against this system.

Expanding the scope of law enforcement agencies through recreationally gathered DNA samples is different. Consumer genetic tests will become increasingly important to the state. A sample provided to find a link to long-lost Aunt Ethel could become the lynchpin in a case years down the line, and the fact of the matter remains that simply indulging your family tree investigation could see your family members become criminal suspects.

However, proponents of law enforcement argue, simply, for police access. Why shouldn’t our law enforcement agencies, be that at local or national level, be able to explore these databases in order to bring potential criminals — criminals still walking amongst us — to light?

What The Future Holds

Last year, 23andMe hired their first official privacy officer, Kate Black, who quickly released their first transparency report. She understands that in the light of increased potential for their customer’s DNA to be shared with law enforcement, many individuals would need reassurance in the website’s privacy and security practices. Equally, the transparency report spells out in no uncertain terms “this is what we do — we will always cooperate with the law,” as you would quite expect. The genealogy websites have literally nothing to gain fighting the DNA requests, and it would be naïve to assume anything else.

23andMe have received four requests, resulting in information relating to five accounts being passed over, be that suspect the account holder, their cousin, father, uncle, grandmother, and so on. Requests for genealogy website-held DNA will continue, appearing with greater frequency in our courtrooms, and privacy advocates will be rightly or wrongly feeling very smug about their predictions.

Have you given your DNA to a genealogy website for tracing? Would you be worried about it being used against you at a later date? Might you now ask for your sample to be destroyed? Let us know below!

Image Credits:police badge by koya979 via Shutterstock, Estimated Number of Geneaologists via GenealogyInTimeCost per Raw Megabase via SingularityHUB

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