Police Could Use Your Private DNA Tests to Charge you For a Crime

October 22, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Graffiti design of DNA symbolizing prison bars
Photo credit: thierry ehrmann/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Have you ever used popular DNA testing sites like Ancestry or 23andMe? Police can access that data to track down suspects, but the ethics behind it are questionable.

When companies like Ancestry and 23andMe first encouraged people to send in their DNA for ancestry tracing and genetic and medical information, people’s first thoughts probably weren’t about how compiling a massive database of DNA information might be used in law enforcement. Now, both companies have over a million customers, and police have a solid resource to use against criminal suspects — or even to try and find suspects based on unknown DNA at crime scenes.

When police fish through the genetic databases to zero in on a criminal, they look for DNA samples that are similar to the unknown perpetrator’s — but not identical. This means that if, by an unlucky coincidence, you have similar DNA to a murderer, you might wind up becoming a prime suspect for a crime you didn’t commit.

The controversial forensic technique is called “familial searching” — police scan DNA databases to find close biological relatives that match unidentified DNA found at crime scenes. Erin Murphy, a NYU law professor and author of Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA, told WIRED, “Anyone who knows the science understands that there’s a high rate of false positives.”

The most recent publicized case of just how damaging familial searching can be is that of Michael Ursy. Police were concerned that they’d pinned the wrong guy for the murder of a teenage girl in Idaho back in 1996, so they decided to revisit the case. As WIRED warned, “Your relative’s DNA could turn you into a suspect,” and this is exactly what happened to Ursy.

Because Ursy’s father had sent in DNA to the private genetics company Ancestry, the police were able to match DNA at the crime scene with DNA from the two men. Since Ursy is a filmmaker known for his violent, murder-centric films, he embodied the very archetype of a suspect with a deranged mind. Plus, the police declared he had ties to the place where the murder was committed. But after Ursy willingly supplied the police with a DNA sample, they found he wasn’t a match. The innocent man was restored with his innocence.

Ursy’s case demonstrates the absolute need for a conversation on the ethics and privacy issues concerning private DNA databases. Fusion reports that the FBI has a national genetic database, but Ursy’s case was the first time they ever employed private genetic databases to try and solve a crime. The policies of both Ancestry and 23andMe state that if they’re presented with a court order, they will comply and hand over DNA information.

Just as WIRED pointed out, what if Michael Ursy had been a high school teacher or in some other occupation where becoming a murder suspect for a teenage girl could have obliterated his career? At least both DNA testing sites have options to delete your personal information within 30 days of request, according to Fusion.

Police having the option to sift through private DNA databases of thousands of innocent people who have never been convicted of a crime is nothing to be taken lightly. People who signed up on Ancestry and 23andMe likely had no intention of making themselves or their family members potential suspects for serious crimes. The whole thing has a sort of Orwellian feel to it, and is yet another bullet to add to the list of privacy issues that must be straightened out in our technology-driven world.

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