Ancestry.com, 23andMe field law enforcement requests for DNA data
SAN FRANCISCO — Investigators are broadening their DNA searches beyond government databases and demanding genetic information from companies that do ancestry research for their customers.
Two major companies that research family lineage for fees of about $200 say that over the past two years, they have received law enforcement demands for genetic information stored in their DNA databases.
Ancestry.com and competitor 23andMe report a total of five requests from law agencies for the genetic material of six individuals in their growing databases of hundreds of thousands. Ancestry.com turned over one person's data for an investigation into the murder and rape of an 18-year-old woman in Idaho Falls, Idaho. 23andMe has received four other court orders but persuaded investigators to withdraw the requests.
The companies say law enforcement demands for genetic information are rare.
But privacy advocates and experts are concerned that genetic information turned over for medical, family history research or other highly personal reasons could be misused by investigators — and that the few known cases could be the start of a trend.
“There will be more requests as time goes on and the technology evolves,” said New York University law professor Erin Murphy, author of “Inside The Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA.”
Law enforcement agencies across the country have access to growing state and national databases with millions of genetic samples of convicted offenders and arrestees.
Investigators compare DNA found at crime scenes against the genetic samples in the government databases. They look at 13 distinct locations in a DNA sample, seeking exact matches at each location to pair a suspect with genetic material at the crime scene.
Ancestry.com and 23andMe officials say their databases won't be useful to most criminal investigations because they analyze regions of DNA different from the locations forensic experts explore.