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Ancestry.com colludes with police to share your genetic information in violation of privacy rights


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(NaturalNews) A massive public genealogy database owned by the family history web site Ancestry.com is being exploited by law enforcement even though donors to the collection were told that their privacy would be assured.

In recent weeks, the New Orleans Advocate published an alarming story that helps explain the very real privacy and civil liberties threats posed by law enforcement access to what were supposed to be private genetic databases and familial DNA searching.

A young woman named Angie Dodge was murdered in her apartment in a small Idaho town in 1996. Although the police collected DNA samples from semen left at the crime scene, they had never managed to match it to existing profiles in any criminal database and the crime went unsolved.

Jump ahead to 2014: Idaho police sent the semen sample to a private laboratory to extract a DNA profile including YSTR and mtDNA, which are the two genetic markers used to determine patrilineal and matrilineal relationships. As noted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an electronic privacy rights group tracking the story, it is not clear why the case was suddenly reopened after about two decades.

"These markers would allow investigators to search some existing databases to try to find a match between the sample and genetic relatives," EFF said.

Police chose a lab linked to a private collection of genetic genealogical data called the Sorenson Database, which is owned by Ancestry.com. It claims it is "the foremost collection of genetic genealogy data in the world." That may be true; Sorenson Database has obtained more than 100,000 DNA samples and documented multi-generational family histories from "volunteers in more than 100 countries around the world."

"Sorenson promised volunteers their genetic data would only be used for 'genealogical services, including the determination of family migration patterns and geographic origins' and would not be shared outside Sorenson," said EFF.

So much for the promise of privacy

Despite the promise, Sorenson's massive collection of data -- including data in other public DNA databases -- can be searched by anyone and is available online, with "DNA results obtained from a commercial lab." Therefore, even without a search warrant or court order, police investigators were able to run crime scene DNA against Sorenson's private data.

When they did, 41 potential familial matches turned up, one of which matched 34 out of 35 alleles; this indicates a very close match that generally means there is a close familial relationship.

At that point, police asked Ancestry.com not only for the "protected" name that was associated with the profile but also for "all information including full names, date of births [sic], date and other information pertaining to the original donor." Ancestry.com initially said it would offer up the information in response to a simple subpoena, but police instead obtained a search warrant.

What happened next is just bizarre and potentially dangerous to the liberty of virtually anyone, as EFF noted:

Ancestry.com linked the crime scene DNA to DNA from a man born in 1952. That man didn't fit the age profile of the murderer, so the investigators used the genealogical information to trace his male descendant line and find his son, Michael Usry Jr., born in 1979. Then the cops searched Usry's Facebook page and found he had some Facebook friends who lived somewhat near Idaho Falls. And then through Google searches, the police learned Usry was a filmmaker who had been involved in making a few short films that had homicide or killings in the story line. (The cop noted in a warrant affidavit "these short films have won awards in several film festivals.") Based on this completely circumstantial evidence, the Idaho investigators got a warrant to collect a swab of Usry's DNA.

He was "lucky"

Police contacted Usry to say they were investigating a hit-and-run and asked to meet with him; he agreed. They took him to a room and interrogated him without a lawyer present, eventually collecting a DNA sample. Usry waited nervously for the results for a month.

In the end, police found that the samples did not match. Although there was a close familial relationship, Usry was not the killer.

He was lucky, especially given the shaky scientific ground involving other, far less reliable DNA analyses.






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