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Ancestry sites are newest frontier for law enforcement

KHOU-TV Houston logo KHOU-TV Houston 2/12/2019 Jessica Borg

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Ancestry sites have exploded in popularity for people looking to trace their heritage or distant relatives.

But now genealogy has also become the newest frontier for law enforcement. It’s not without controversy, though, and one Houston-based company is currently at the center of it.

Family Tree DNA headquartered in northwest Houston, e-mailed customers last week saying it’s now letting the FBI upload crime scene DNA data to search through its public genetic database. The goal is to find relatives of potential suspects of violent crimes such as murder and rape.

The FBI is also aiming to identify the remains of unknown victims. Many victims’ advocates are in favor of the company’s move to work with Iaw enforcement. However, some privacy advocates say it raises serious ethical questions.

Investigative genealogy garnered international attention last April when police arrested the man suspected of being the Golden State Killer. Police say they finally identified him after uploading crime scene data from decades ago to a public genetic database. That crime scene DNA was matched to a distant relative of the suspect, and from there, police were able to narrow down their search and locate the alleged killer.

Family Tree DNA hopes to help police track down other violent offenders.

“I would never do anything to betray the trust of my customers, and at the same time, I felt it important to enable my customers to crowd-source the catching of criminals,” said Bennett Greenspan, the president and founder of Family Tree DNA.

Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea.

“I think this is a big consent issue,” said Kirsten Matthews, a professor of science and technology at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

Matthews said not everyone who joins the site – to trace their heritage or connect with long-lost family members -- will be aware or prepared for the path it could take them down.

“It could be that someone is implicated by you submitting your sample in, and it could mean your grandparents, or cousins of your grandparents," she said.

Matthews noted those relatives might not have given their consent to have their DNA matched.

The company, which was the first in the industry to do direct-to-consumer DNA kits, says it's treating the FBI as if it’s a regular customer. That means the agency won’t be given access to raw genetic data.

“In terms of law enforcement and their accessibility, when they upload a sample to find matches, they only see what other customers see. If they want anything else, they have to issue a subpoena, which we have to comply with,” said Dr. Connie Bormans, laboratory Director of Gene by Gene, the parent company of Family Tree DNA.

Family Tree DNA says it has about 2 million customers in its database that the FBI can cross-reference.

“We can play our part in making our society safer for all of us,” Greenspan said.

The company says people can “opt out” of having their DNA information put in its public data-base. Doing so, however, will mean they won’t connect with relatives who’ve uploaded their DNA profile. Customers say connecting with distant relatives is one of the most popular features of the site.

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