Genetic analysis company Ancestry said Tuesday that it denied law enforcement officials access to its DNA database,media CNET reported. According to a transparency report released in late January, Ancestry received a request from law enforcement to access its genetic database in 2019, but the company refused. Buzzfeed reported earlier Monday that the warrant came from a Pennsylvania court, but the DNA analysis company said the warrant was not served properly. The warrant could give law enforcement officials access to 16 million DNA files from the company’s customers.
The transparency report comes as law enforcement agencies across the United States have cracked dozens of murders, rapes and assaults, some decades ago, using a technique called genetic genealogy. This practice relies on investigators’ access to a large cache of DNA profiles and has raised concerns among privacy regulators.
An Ancestry spokesman said in a statement that the company had not received any follow-up action since it fought the licensing order. The company said it was denying law enforcement access to its databaseas as part of its broader commitment to user privacy. “We do not share customer information with law enforcement unless forced by effective legal proceedings, such as court orders or search warrants, and we will always advocate for the privacy of our customers and seek to narrow the scope of any mandatory disclosure, or even eliminate it altogether.” “
Gene genealogy works by comparing the DNA of a crime scene with the data in the genetic database. In all the files, investigators can find the distant relatives of the unsuspected suspect. Investigators then used traditional genealogy studies to identify potential suspects and then conduct DNA-matched crime scene tests on them. Some suspects have pleaded guilty, while others are awaiting trial. So far, at least one case has led to a trial conviction.
To date, most researchers have relied on GEDmatch services. GEDmatch was created by DNA enthusiasts who want to provide a place for people to upload their genetic files from many services, including Ancestry and 23andMe, to contact relatives and study genetics. The site changed its terms in 2019 to require users to choose to include their data in law enforcement investigations, reducing the amount of data investigators use in their queries.
The technology provides law enforcement agencies with more genetic information than is commonly used when looking at crime scene DNA. Criminal investigators often create DNA fingerprints from forensic samples to obtain all genetic information that may reveal personal characteristics, such as hair, eye color, or genetic health. For genetic genealogy, researchers need to include this information to identify relatives.
Ancestry said the company did meet six other enforcement requirements related to “credit card abuse, fraud and identity theft.”