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What You’re Unwrapping When You Get a DNA Test for Christmas

The company GEDmatch, the DNA database that facilitated an arrest in the Golden State Killer case and in dozens of other cases since, emerged from a desire to connect people to their relatives. For the past decade, the site’s co-founder Curtis Rogers has been running the company out of a small yellow house in Lake Worth, Fla.

When Mr. Rogers first learned that the DNA of GEDmatch users had played a critical role in identifying a suspected serial killer, he was upset. “I didn’t think this was an appropriate use of our site,” he said in an interview in May 2018, five weeks after the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo. This month, Mr. Rogers sold GEDmatch to Verogen, a commercial forensic company best known for providing police and F.BI. labs with tools for making predictions about suspected criminals’ ancestry, eye color and hair color.

FamilyTreeDNA, a DNA database of 2 million people, similarly was built from its founders’ desire to help people connect with relatives. “We feel the only person that should have your DNA is you,” Bennett Greenspan, the company’s president, said in a news release in 2017. But it’s also a company that offers law-enforcement officials, for a fee of $800, the ability to search its database for relatives of suspected killers and rapists.

So what do these developments mean for that DNA kit sitting under your Christmas tree? Men’s Journal calls them “one of the hottest gifting ideas,” and US Weekly promises that “they’re going to love it, no matter how tough of a critic they are.” But is using one of these kits also opening the door to letting the police use your DNA to arrest your cousin?

The answer in this rapidly evolving realm depends largely on which sites you join and the boxes you check off when you do. And even if you never join any of these sites, their policies could affect you so long as one of your 800 closest relatives has.

15 million (Ancestry) and 10 million DNA profiles (23andMe)

If there is a DNA test under your tree it probably came from one of these two companies. Both market themselves extensively during the holidays. 23andMe likens its myriad ancestry and health reports to “150 personalized gifts in one colorful box,” while Ancestry takes a more sentimental tack, urging families to discover their “unique story.”

Short answer: No. But the fight over access is intensifying.

Longer answer: Each of these databases is big enough to identify nearly all 300 million Americans’ DNA through their cousins, researchers have found. This makes them a tantalizing tool for law enforcement officials, who say the data could help them solve thousands of violent crimes and identify unknown victims if only they could put a name to associated DNA.

To identify a suspect’s blood, for example, investigators do not need to find the person who cut his hand smashing through a window. They just need to match to a couple of his second or third cousins in a DNA database. From there, a genetic genealogist can puzzle out how these cousins are related to one another and the suspect by building out a series of family trees. Often this leads to an arrest.

Part of the reason that these databases have grown so rapidly, however, is that they have promised to keep law enforcement out.

Both companies require a court order for access and say that they have not yet permitted law enforcement to conduct a genetic search. But interest is high. Eric Heath, Ancestry’s chief privacy officer, said in an interview last month that he received 24 emails in 2019 requesting access to the site from law enforcement. These emails included a request to upload DNA to try to identify a suspect in a cold case and a request to search for relatives of an unidentified body. Mr. Heath said he responded by sharing the site’s policy and the requests ended there.

But they may not in the future. In July, a judge in Florida granted a detective a search warrant to obtain access to nearly 1 million GEDmatch users (more on GEDmatch below) who had elected not to help law enforcement. Many privacy advocates and genealogists were horrified and warned that the development would encourage warrants for searching bigger sites like Ancestry.

Anne Marie Schubert, the Sacramento County district attorney, has been involved in advising law enforcement agencies on how to solve crimes with genealogy sites since her agency helped crack the Golden State Killer case. She said she supported the judge’s ruling. “I commend Florida for taking that first step,” she said, calling it “a natural progression in an evolving world.” She said she believes that investigators will eventually gain access to Ancestry.

Should such a search warrant be served to Ancestry, Mr. Heath said, the company is prepared to fight. “We’re willing to push back and narrow the scope and squash it however we need to,” he said. 23andMe made a similar commitment on its blog.

Ms. Schubert is among a group of people who are encouraging the big companies to allow users to opt in to help law enforcement. Mr. Heath said that won’t happen. Other databases serve that purpose, he said, adding, “I don’t want to manage that.”

1.3 million DNA profiles

It is unlikely that anyone will be getting you the gift of a GEDmatch subscription. Uploading to the site is free and the company does not offer DNA tests. But when uploads to other sites rise, uploads to GEDmatch typically follow. That’s because the site functions as a means to get more from your DNA; you can take a DNA file analyzed by another company, like 23andMe, and upload it to GEDmatch to find more relatives and ancestry data.

Short answer: Maybe.

Longer answer: People who upload to GEDmatch can choose among four settings. These include help law enforcement, opt out of law enforcement searches, and research mode, which is supposed to hide your profile from everyone.

It recently became clear, however, that no one on the site is fully protected from law enforcement searches. When the judge in Florida granted a detective a warrant to search the full database, that included nearly a million profiles of people who had chosen not to help police. This search warrant applies only to this case, but could encourage other detectives to request similar warrants.

Just last week, a forensic company purchased GEDmatch. The move delivers dueling messages about the site’s future. The new owner, Verogen, said that it would actively fight future search warrants and that users can still opt out of helping police. But Verogen is also a company that has built its business, so far, on catering to law enforcement.

2.5 million DNA profiles

Like the others, FamilyTreeDNA wants to help connect you with your family history. But unlike most other such companies, it actively welcomes law enforcement uploads. The company offers a variety of packages for police departments, including one that comes with a genetic genealogist who works for the site to help authorities parse their results and potentially solve a crime.

(Barbara Rae-Venter, who helped crack the Golden State Killer case is the director of this new unit. Read more about her here.)

Yes. If you join the site without modifying the settings, you are agreeing to help law enforcement officials identify DNA from crime scenes. If you opt out or are based in Europe, however, you will not appear in search results for police officers who follow the rules.

FamilyTreeDNA has created a highly unusual vetting system for each formal law enforcement request. Connie Bormans, the company’s lab director, reviews the details of each case. “If it meets the criteria, then we’ll say O.K., this is a good candidate; we’ll send you all the paperwork we need.” Recently, for example, she denied a missing person request from a law enforcement agency that wasn’t technically an abduction, she said.

2.5 million DNA profiles

MyHeritage exists primarily to help people find relatives and build out family trees. Recently, the company also began offering health risk reports.

Short answer: They are not supposed to.

Longer answer: Law enforcement is “strictly prohibited” from using the site without a court order, according to the terms of service. Logistically it would be possible, however. Like GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage accepts DNA files analyzed elsewhere.