Does Your Cousin’s DNA Make You a Suspect?

Gavin Phillips 09-03-2016

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 Research Your Family Tree Online Various specialist software tools are available to help you to map your family tree and there are websites available that can help you out with everything from census results to finding graves. Read More .


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 15 Massive Online Databases You Should Know About The Internet documents everything. Some of that data gets concentrated in massive knowledgebases. Call them online encyclopedias or databases -- the question is, do you know about the best ones? Read More . At the time, privacy advocates warned against the creation of giant, centralized genetic databases Journey Into The Hidden Web: A Guide For New Researchers This manual will take you on a tour through the many levels of the deep web: databases and information available in academic journals. Finally, we’ll arrive at the gates of Tor. Read More .

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


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 both have over one million customers, while MyHeritage boasts over 80 million.

Of course, not all of these members have had their DNA sequenced Top 10 Emerging Technologies That Are Changing The World From agriculture to medicine to energy, advancements are being made every day. Learn a little bit about these 10 emerging technologies that could directly affect your life within the next few years. Read More — 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 So What Is a Database, Anyway? [MakeUseOf Explains] For a programmer or a technology enthusiast, the concept of a database is something that can really be taken for granted. However, for many people the concept of a database itself is a bit foreign.... Read More 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 3 Tips To Stay Safe From The Dangers Of Cloud Computing Cloud computing is the big buzz these days and we have more choices available to us now than ever before. How many of us use Dropbox, SkyDrive, or Google Drive on a daily basis? How... Read More of 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 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, a company whose privacy policy stipulates that it will cooperate with law enforcement Want To Ditch Big Business And Protect Your Privacy? Here's How Read More 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 Why Internet Monitoring Laws Will Make Criminals Harder to Catch [Opinion] While the ITU is busy behind closed doors trying to take away Internet freedoms on a global scale, the UK government brazenly announced plans to give wide-reaching Internet monitoring powers to various British agencies as... Read More . 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

Related topics: Genealogy, Online Privacy, Surveillance.

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  1. Lon
    March 10, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    Even asking that your sample be destroyed will not remove all traces of it from computers. Once information is entered into a database, it gets copied multiple times. Typically backups of the db are kept. And some backups may be offsite and years old. Some companies I have worked with have no clue where or even if there is an older backup floating around in some forgotten repository. And the constant buying and selling of companies with its accompanying churn of owners, CEOs, IT people and employees just exacerbates this.

    I once worked for a company which was bought out. I, along with most of the employees were laid off with little notice. Some years later, I was employed by another company that had acquired the previous company in still another buy out. I remembered that some of our backups at the first company had been archived with a 3d party data storage company. NO ONE at the new company knew about those old backups. I called the third party - who had themselves been bought out, and found an employee there who helped me find an old backup from the first company - it was still in their vault.

    • Gavin Phillips
      March 19, 2016 at 2:18 pm

      Wow, years down the line, multiple buyouts, third-party vendors, and there they were, sitting in the vault. Once you're in the system, you stay there. I wonder how many of the people willingly passing their DNA over consider the longevity aspect. Thanks for reading!

  2. R Harrison
    March 10, 2016 at 11:20 am

    If this is to be our future, then the person's whose DNA was provided in good faith to a trusted company - that company should also make it their policy to contact that person to let them know that a court order has been fulfilled and how the law is using that information.

    • Gavin Phillips
      March 19, 2016 at 2:14 pm

      I believe they do pass the details on, as would only be right, but only after the details have been passed. Part of the disconcerting slide into the future's envisaged by Orwell and Huxley. Thanks for reading!