Home DNA testing company FamilyTreeDNA has apologized for failing to disclose it was sharing genetic information with the FBI in an attempt to solve violent crimes. Loyal users say they feel betrayed.
Previously, the company had marketed itself as a leader of consumer privacy and a fierce protector of user data. Unlike some of its competitors, it said it refused to sell information to third parties. However, the Houston-based firm quietly and voluntarily agreed in 2018 to open its database of more than 2 million DNA samples in its laboratory to the FBI to help identify suspects and victims of unsolved rapes and murders.
FamilyTreeDNA’s president, Bennett Greenspan, defended the agreement with the FBI but apologized for not revealing it sooner.
“I am genuinely sorry for not having handled our communications with you as we should have”, Mr Greenspan told his clients. “We’ve received an incredible amount of support from those of you who believe this is an opportunity for honest, law-abiding citizens to help catch bad guys and bring closure to devastated families.”
The company has not disclosed how many cases the FBI has worked on, but Mr Greenspan said it was “a handful of DNA samples for cold cases from the FBI”.
Privacy debate continues
The debate continues over privacy and ethical issues with crime investigators using genealogical sites to solve cases. There is a lack of universal regulations governing direct-to-consumer genetic testing in the USA: companies can use their data without consumers’ knowledge.
The popularity of consumer DNA tests has risen steeply in recent years, with major sites like Ancestry.com and 23andMe offering personalized ancestry reports and tools to find possible relatives. They have also helped law enforcement agencies solve high-profile cases such as the Golden State Killer last year.
In the past, investigators have used open-source sites such as GEDmatch, which is free, to find DNA matches and possible relatives. The arrangement with FamilyTreeDNA is the first known commercial site to provide services without a subpoena or warrant.
FamilyTreeDNA says that the FBI will have access to its website like any other user. After a person’s DNA file has been uploaded, investigators can search for potential relatives with overlapping DNA. In addition, the company’s genetic testing laboratory, Gene by Gene, has agreed to create data profiles from DNA samples provided by the FBI, which can then be plugged into other family history sites.
Millions of people have submitted their DNA to companies like FamilyTreeDNA in recent years, and hundreds more do so every week. While they represent a small fraction of all people, researchers say that the pool of profiles is large enough to allow 60% of white Americans – the primary users of DNA sites in the USA – to be identified through the databases. Once 3 million Americans have uploaded their genomes to public genealogy websites nearly everyone in the USA would be identifiable, they say.
Rest assured: AlphaBiolabs does not store personal data including our customers’ DNA profiles. We also don’t sell on any information. You can read more about our privacy and DNA testing here. To find out about our range of DNA testing services call us now on 727-325-2902, visit us or email firstname.lastname@example.org.