One DNA-matching company has decided it’s going to corner an under-served market: US law enforcement. FamilyTreeDNA — last seen here opening up its database to the FBI without informing its users first — is actively pitching its services to law enforcement.
FamilyTreeDNA sounds like it’s finally going to seek consent from its customers, but only after having abused their trust once and under the assumption they’re all going to play ball. While some DNA companies like 23andMe are insisting on at least a subpoena before handing over access to DNA database search results, other companies are staying quiet about law enforcement access or specifically targeting law enforcement agencies with ads promising to help them work through their cold case files.
Consent is great, but it’s never going to be complete consent, no matter how FamilyTreeDNA shapes the argument. As Elizabeth Joh points out at Slate, there’s a whole lot of people involved who will never be asked for their consent once a customer agrees to allow DNA-matching sites to hand over their samples to law enforcement.
[W]hen you volunteer your DNA sample, you’re volunteering your genetic family tree, without having asked your parents, siblings, cousins, and distant cousins if they agree. That upends the usual way we think about providing information to law enforcement. You can’t give the police lawful consent to search your third cousin’s house, even if your third cousin (who you may never have met) is suspected of having been involved in a serious crime. Why are we allowing a distant relative to grant police permission to your DNA?
There’s no informed consent happening here. Customers are being treated as data points law enforcement can peruse at its leisure. A customer who agrees to be a good citizen (by clicking OK on a submission box on a private company’s website) may learn later their sample was used to lock up a close relative. Some people will be fine with this outcome. Others may regret being the critical piece of evidence used to incarcerate one of their relatives.
Whatever the case is, very few companies are being upfront about the effects of opening up database access to law enforcement. FamilyTreeDNA is using a crime victim’s parent and the founder’s Team Blue sympathies to hustle its customers towards compliance. Users who don’t like this turn of events will likely find it far more difficult to remove their DNA from FamilyTreeDNA’s database than simply hold their nose and become an willing part of this partnership.