Judge Says Police Can Search Company’s Entire DNA Database

2019-11-05 17:07:20

A Florida detective successfully obtained a warrant to search the company GEDmatch’s full database of user-provided genetic information, even if users had opted out of appearing in police search results, HuffPost has confirmed. 

The warrant, signed by a judge in Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit Court in July, will likely earn praise from law enforcement and criticism from privacy advocates wary of how DNA databases could be abused.

It appears to be the first warrant of its kind. Orlando Police Department Detective Michael Fields disclosed its existence during the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Chicago last week, according to The New York Times

Fields told the Times that the warrant has generated new leads but no arrests.

Public awareness of GEDmatch, a genealogy website and genetic database, rose sharply in April 2018, when California authorities announced they had arrested Joseph James DeAngelo ― the man they believed to be the Golden State Killer ― using the site’s publicly searchable data. DeAngelo is thought to have committed around 50 rapes and at least 13 murders in the 1970s and 1980s. 

GEDmatch differs from well-known companies such as 23andMe and Ancestry because it does not offer DNA testing kits. Rather, people who have already had their genetic material tested can upload their profiles to GEDmatch, where they can try to find relatives they may not have been able to locate using their testing company’s site. The downside is that it offers a smaller pool of profiles — around 1 million compared to 23andMe’s 10 million and Ancestry’s 15 million.

DeAngelo’s arrest was an exciting moment for cold case investigators. They imagined how GEDmatch and other platforms could be used to track down the many rapists and murderers who have managed to evade the law ― bringing closure to countless victims and families.

Fields, for one, would like to see law enforcement get expanded access to such databases. 

“You would see hundreds and hundreds of unsolved crimes solved overnight,” he told The New York Times. “I hope I get a case where I get to try.”

To others, however, the idea that police could start infiltrating genetic databases was chilling. GEDmatch began restricting law enforcement use of its site in May, mandating that officers identify themselves on the site and only use it to search the profiles of people who had opted in to law enforcement searches. 

Maintaining consumer trust has long been vital to the biggest DNA testing companies, 23andMe and Ancestry. Both companies underscore their privacy policies to prospective customers and make a point to provide transparency reports about any law enforcement requests they receive.

Whether those companies could face increased pressure to open up to law enforcement remains to be seen.

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