The violation of privacy continues in the latest partnership between Family Tree and the FBI.
March 5, 2019
It’s fun to submit your saliva sample to a DNA matching company and discover the treasure-trove of information you can from it.
But it may not be as fun anymore because one of the largest at-home DNA companies, Family Tree, has become a “backup” DNA database for the FBI. According to BuzzFeed:
Family Tree DNA, one of the largest private genetic testing companies whose home-testing kits enable people to trace their ancestry and locate relatives, is working with the FBI and allowing agents to search its vast genealogy database in an effort to solve violent crime cases, BuzzFeed News has learned.
This voluntary access to law enforcement is unprecedented. And as a year-old Techdirt piece highlighted, cops are creating fake accounts just to close out cold cases:
Police created a fake account to submit the sample they had and received matches that allowed them to narrow down the list of suspects.
Put the two together and, if you have submitted your sample to Family Tree, you are in law enforcement’s new database. This could also include other DNA matching companies yet to be discovered.
Have you spoken to your neighbor? Someone in the grocery store? Passerby on the street? Loose connections like this could unwillingly make you part of an FBI investigation. Do you want your DNA in an easily searchable database if that were the case? I certainly wouldn’t.
For privacy advocates, the FBI’s new ability to match the genetic profiles from a private company could set a dangerous precedent in a world where DNA test kits have become as common as a Christmas stocking-stuffer.
With detectives, FBI agents, and other law enforcement desperate for any new leads, having DNA access like this could be like opening Pandora’s box.
The FBI discovered this loophole two years ago according to Techdirt, and before anyone started looking into what they were doing… they exploited it.
Family Tree seems almost “giddy” they are “helping” the FBI by partnering with them on cold cases, which sets another dangerous privacy precedent (emphasis mine):
The company feels the potential PR hit is worth it because it’s “helping” the FBI “solve violent crimes.” This is a bit discouraging. We’re used to government agencies excusing incursions into people’s privacy with statements about “violent crime” or “terrorism” or “the War on…” or whatever. It’s disheartening when a private company does it, thinking it’s somehow serving the public better by turning their DNA samples into investigation fodder.
So your “fun” activity of discovering what you can know using your DNA has been turned into “grist for the investigation mill” of the FBI.
In fact, if you wanted to “opt-out” of having your DNA accessible by these law enforcement “searches,” you can’t really get maximum value out of their service:
Officials at Family Tree said customers could decide to opt out of any familial matching, which would prevent their profiles from being searchable by the FBI. But by doing so, customers would also be unable to use one of the key features of the service: finding possible relatives through DNA testing.
The uncertainty of what extent companies like Family Tree will hand over your data to third parties is also disturbing. How can you trust them, even in a paid relationship?
The answer is you can’t. There isn’t any good reason to trust any company with access to your data, even if they are fun to use.
Right now, any data you have “floating out there” on the Web is an open book under the right circumstances… even if that data should be kept private.
With just a few clicks, a phone call, and a few dollars almost everything someone wants to find out about you can quickly be put together into a complete file.
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