Are Genetic Genealogy Investigations Willing to Skirt the Rules?

Millions of Americans enjoy the pursuit of hunting down their ancestors using a variety of techniques and record sources every year. With the proliferation of the internet, keyboard warriors can make significant progress on their family lines without leaving their couch.

One fairly new technique that has become popular is using DNA to help find both descendants and ancestors. With just a spit tube or swab, you can take one step closer to solving the latest family history mystery. Forensic genetic genealogy, as it is often called, has exploded and many professionals specialize in analyzing the results that come from using products like Ancestry or 23andMe. 

There’s just one problem; law enforcement noticed too.

Over the past decade, protections have been put in place by most private companies to protect their users from unconstitutional investigations. One exception has been a public service called GEDMatch. They simply ask their users to consent to these searches — without much thought to relatives who might not care to have portions of their DNA shared with the government — as they upload their DNA results and then bifurcate the two databases.

But just this month it has been reported that genetic genealogists have not only found a loophole to get around this, but have been exploiting it in direct violation of the Fourth Amendment and the terms and conditions of GEDMatch.

This isn’t the first time nor the last time that such a problematic search has occurred as outlined by The Intercept’s report.

State-Level Legal Guardrails

It once again raises important questions about how we will protect national databases of biometric information like DNA from falling into the hands of law enforcement. Whether the database is created by private entities or the government, fishing expeditions into this data must end if we are to uphold the ideals laid down in the Bill of Rights centuries ago.

These searches lack the particularity required to make them legitimate, so states have slowly begun passing laws to create guardrails, but they are simply not enough. Just last year, Utah passed a law that is weak on protecting individuals from having their rights violated by genetic genealogy searches.

We can do better, and this country must do better, otherwise the right to privacy will simply disappear.