Genetic testing has become sufficiently cheap and fast that companies like 23andMe and Ancestry have sprung up to offer consumer genetic testing services. That means millions of people have copies of their genetic profiles sitting on a server someplace for the first time, and police have taken notice. A Florida court has set a potentially troubling precedent by allowing police to access one of these online databases in full, even if users opted out of law enforcement searches.
The warrant, signed by Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit Court in July, granted Orlando police full access to the genetic profiles stored on GEDmatch. You might remember that site from when police in California used it to track down the Golden State Killer in 2018. Police departments around the country began looking at ways to use online genetic databases to find new leaks in cold cases, but GEDmatch faced intense criticism from users who didn’t know police could snoop their DNA. Being part of police investigations wasn’t part of the deal.
GEDmatch is a bit different than companies like 23andMe in that it doesn’t provide DNA testing services. Instead, the site allows people to upload the genetic results they get from other companies to search for relatives among its user base. GEDmatch attempted to shield users from police sweeps following the Golden State Killer case by requiring officers to identify themselves on the site and only use it for serious criminal investigations. Users also had to opt-in to law enforcement access, which only 185,000 of the site’s 1.3 million users did.
Orlando Police Department Detective Michael Fields talked about the first of its kind warrant at the recent International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Chicago. The warrant allowed the department complete access to GEDmatch’s genealogy database, regardless of whether or not users opted into police investigations. The site complied with the warrant within 24 hours. Fields says the search hasn’t yielded any new arrests, but the department has gotten some potential leads.
Privacy advocates now worry that the Florida court’s decision could encourage departments to go after larger testing sites like 23andMe, which has 10 million users, and Ancestry with its 15 million users. Whatever happens, you should keep in mind what might happen to your DNA if you put it online.
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