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Cops Turn to Ancestry.com for Shaky DNA Matches

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on October 28, 2015 6:59 AM

DNA analysis was once at the forefront of medical science. Now it's just another consumer entertainment product. Rub a swab against your cheek, send it off to a company like Ancestry.com or 23andMe and in a few weeks you'll get a quick, simple genetic profile. Who knew you were part Polynesian?

But those companies are creating vast genetic repositories based on consumer curiosity. Police, in turn, are turning to those data stores to search for DNA matches that aren't in criminal databases, according to a report by Wired. And even if you never swabbed yourself, a relative's DNA sample can be enough to implicate you.

Singled out by Familial DNA

For decades, DNA has been used to connect people to crimes, to vindicate the wrongly convicted, or to review long-forgotten "cold cases." But the proliferation of cheap and easy DNA test has lead to a vast expansion of private stores of genetic information. Ancestry.com, for example, will perform "ethnicity and genealogical DNA testing" for just under $100. Your genetic information doesn't just tell people about you, of course, but contains important information about those you're related to, from your immediate relatives to your distant Samoan ancestors.

Those databases are important resources for curious consumers, genetic researchers, and now cops. Take the case of Michael Usry, recently featured in Wired and first reported by The New Orleans Advocate. Usry's father had provided genetic information to a Mormon genealogy project that was bought up by Ancestry.com. Police, investigating a 1996 murder of an Idaho Falls teenager, looked into the database for DNA that matched that at the crime scene. Well, really they searched for DNA that sort of matched, performing a "familial DNA search."

Familial DNA searches allow researchers to identify "suspects who don't have DNA in a law enforcement database but whose close relatives have had their genetic profiles cataloged." Michael Usry never submitted genetic information to Ancestry.com, but his father's DNA was enough to connect him to the crime. (Further DNA testing eventually exonerated him.)

Increasingly Common -- and Largely Unprotected

False positives like Usry's aren't rare, either. Matches are often tenuous and unreliable. A study of familiar DNA searches in California showed that only about 10 percent "returned a match that warrants any investigative follow-up," according to Wired. Yet familial DNA searching is expected to grow increasingly common.

If users want to keep their DNA out of the hands of investigators, they shouldn't expect testing companies to do it for them. Both Ancestry.com and 23andMe have privacy policies that notify customers that they could share information with police -- should users bother reading them. However, some states have acted to limit law enforcement access to private genetic databases. In California, for example, police must go through the state Department of Justice before looking into private DNA data stores.

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