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November 8, 2019

A detective was granted a warrant to search a private DNA database. Is your genetic privacy at risk?

Daily Briefing

    A Florida detective at a police conference last week announced that a judge had approved a warrant to search the genetic profiles of almost one million users on GEDmatch—news that alarms privacy advocates, who fear that warrants like this could "tur[n] all genetic databases into law enforcement databases," Kashmir Hill and Heather Murphy write for the New York Times.

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    The history of law enforcement and DNA sites

    In recent years, DNA sites such as GEDmatch, Ancestry.com, and 23andMe have grown in popularity among individuals looking to gain insight into their health, or ancestry, or find relatives, Hill and Murphy report.

    However, after California police in 2018 used GEDmatch to identify and arrest Joseph James DeAngelo, the man they currently believe is the Golden State Killer, law enforcement agencies across the United States have used similar methods to identify suspects and victims in more than 70 criminal cases.

    But, after receiving pushback from a group of genealogists, GEDmatch in May 2019 changed its policies to only give law enforcement agents access to the genetic profiles of users who specifically opted in to having their information available for that use. As of last week, only 185,000 of the 1.3 million users on GEDmatch opted in, according to Curtis Rogers, co-founder of the DNA site. The policies also require law enforcement agents to identify themselves when searching the database.

    Detective gets 'game-changing' warrant

    For law enforcement, the new GEDmatch policies posed an obstacle to accessing data that they'd used in the past to help them solve cases, Hill and Murphy write.

    For instance, Michael Fields, a detective with the Orlando Police Department, in 2018 used the DNA site to identify a suspect in a 2001 murder case, which he'd previously spent six years trying to solve.

    So when Fields started investigating his current case, involving a serial rapist who'd attacked multiple women decades ago, he asked Judge Patricia Strowbridge of Florida's Ninth Judicial Circuit Court to give him a warrant that would override GEDmatch's new privacy policies and allow him to search the site's database to identify his suspect.  

    Strowbridge approved the warrant, marking the first time a judge approved a warrant for access to a DNA site, Fields announced at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Chicago last week. According to Fields, GEDmatch complied with the warrant within 24 hours.

    Currently, Fields has some leads on the case, but has yet to make an arrest. At the conference, "multiple other detectives and officers approached [Fields] asking for a copy of the warrant," but Fields declined to share it, according to Logan Koepke, a policy analyst at Upturn.

    Why the warrant has some legal experts concerned

    Erin Murphy, a law professor at New York University, said the warrant represents "a huge game-changer." She said, "The company made a decision to keep law enforcement out, and that's been overridden by a court. It's a signal that no genetic information can be safe."

    According to Murphy, the warrant could encourage law enforcement agencies to seek warrants for some of the largest genetic databases, such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com, especially if there is no public outcry over the warrant. "I have no question in my mind that if the public isn't outraged by this, they will go to the mother lode: the 15-million-person Ancestry database," she said.

    Currently, Ancestry and 23andMe oppose allowing law enforcement to access their databases, but 23andMe has suggested it would ultimately comply with a legal request for access, Hill and Murphy report.

    Christine Pai, a spokesperson for 23andMe, in a statement said the company will "never share customer data with law enforcement unless we receive a legally valid request such as a search warrant or written court order." Pai added that the site will "use all practical legal measures to challenge such requests in order to protect our customers' privacy."

    Ancestry.com did not respond to a request for comment on Fields' search warrant, Hill and Murphy report.

    Fields said he looks forward to a time when he can access the Ancestry.com and 23andMe databases for law enforcement purposes. "You would see hundreds and hundreds of unsolved crimes solved overnight," he said. "I hope I get a case where I get to try" (Hill/Murphy, New York Times, 11/5).

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