More than 20 million people have uploaded DNA information to consumer websites such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe under the belief that these sites would keep the information private. However, police in Florida announced that they had been granted a warrant to search a DNA site for evidence related to an ongoing investigation, potentially setting a serious precedent that has many concerned.
Detective Fields told other law enforcement agents about his efforts during a talk at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Chicago in October. The talk did not include details of how the warrant was worded.
The question of if and how police should be able to search such sites when trying to solve cases came into the public spotlight in April 2018 when California police used GEDmatch to identify a suspect believed to be the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo. Genealogists and other experts have warned that if police utilize such resources too often, many people will stop using them, thus depriving police of a potentially valuable resource.
Larger sites like Ancestry.com and 23andMe have stated they would not share user data with police. However, it is unclear how those sites would react if faced with a warrant. In a response to inquiries from the New York Times on the matter, a spokesman for 23andMe said, “We never share customer data with law enforcement unless we receive a legally valid request such as a search warrant or written court order. Upon receipt of an inquiry from law enforcement, we use all practical legal measures to challenge such requests in order to protect our customers’ privacy.”
In addition to privacy concerns, such sites have a good reason to deny police access: Forensic DNA testing is not and has never been a foolproof science. Mishandled samples and improper procedures often lead to false positives and wrongful convictions. But the legal system has been slow to accept this reality, often relying on DNA as a smoking gun that indicates guilt, even in the face of airtight alibies and suspects that don’t match descriptions. The same can be said of at-home DNA test kits, which can result in inaccurate analyses as much as 40% of the time, according to some studies.
Needless to say, any person facing charges on the basis of website-obtained DNA samples should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately.