Genetic analysis company Ancestry denied law enforcement access to its database following a warrant from a Pennsylvania court in 2019, according to its recent transparency report. Known for offering one of the best genealogy websites on the market, Ancestry DNA says it denied police access to its database of 16 million DNA profiles on jurisdictional grounds.
A spokesperson for Ancestry DNA said "not only will we not share customer information with law enforcement unless compelled to by valid legal process, such as a court order or search warrant, we will also always advocate for our customers' privacy and seek to narrow the scope of any compelled disclosure, or even eliminate it entirely."
This comes amid a rise in investigative genealogy, which is the use of genealogy profiles to find partial matches for DNA found at crime scenes. By compiling family trees based on partial DNA matches, law enforcement can identify suspects in cold cases. This technique lead to the arrest of the suspected Golden State Killer in 2018.
Is genetic privacy being compromised?
This news may fuel concerns surrounding the conflict between people’s rights to genetic privacy and compliance with law enforcement. Following the arrest of suspected Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo in 2018 using DNA profiles found on the free genealogy website GEDMatch, the company changed its policy allowing users to opt in to sharing their DNA profiles with law enforcement. Only 1 in 6 chose to do so.
A retired investigator in the Golden State Killer case has said that he believes “there are going to be legal battles” surrounding this issue. Paul Holes told BuzzFeed News “It would not surprise me, years down the road, if this could be a US Supreme Court issue.”
The best DNA testing kits specialize in connecting people with lost relatives and tracing genealogical heritage, as well as offering insights on genetic health conditions. With a massive database of 16 million profiles, it is clear that Ancestry DNA has the capacity to play a pivotal role in investigative genealogy in the future. However, with recent findings from Pew Research Centre revealing that 81% of Americans think the potential risks of personal data collection by companies outweigh the benefits (with 66% saying the same about government data collection) it is clear that Ancestry DNA is keen to show its prioritization of genetic data privacy. This is reflected in recent changes to its privacy statement, which states that "Ancestry does not voluntarily cooperate with law enforcement."