Years ago, New Orleans filmmaker Michael Usry's father gave a DNA sample to a Mormon Church-sponsored genealogical project. Its database was later acquired by the popular Ancestry.com website.
That led to Usry becoming a suspect in a cold case murder.
Although the DNA sample was listed as "protected" in the original Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation database, Ancestry.com handed over the sample to police last year in response to a court order, the New Orleans Advocate reports
Using a technique known as "familial searching," Idaho Falls, Idaho police were able to hone in on the Usry family DNA as part of their investigation into the 1996 slaying of an 18-year-old woman.
Although Usry was eventually cleared of the crime, privacy advocates are horrified.
"The FBI maintains a national genetic database with samples from convicts and arrestees, but this was the most public example of cops turning to private genetic databases to find a suspect," Kashmir Hill writes on the website, Fusion
"But it's not the only time it's happened, and it means that people who submitted genetic samples for reasons of health, curiosity, or to advance science could now end up in a genetic line-up of criminal suspects."
Ancestry.com and 23andMe, another popular genealogy site, both "stipulate in their privacy policies that they will turn information over to law enforcement if served with a court order," Hill writes.
Privacy rights are not the only concern.
"Anyone who knows the science understands that there's a high rate of false positives,"says Erin Murphy, a New York University law professor and the author of "Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA," Wired.com reports
Besides the fears that come with becoming a suspect in a major criminal investigation, there is the inconvenience and waste of personal time and money involved in defending oneself over what often turns out to be a useless investigation.
"The searches, after all, look for DNA profiles that are similar to the perpetrator’s but by no means identical, a scattershot approach that yields many fruitless leads, and for limited benefit," Brendan Koerner writes for Wired.
"In the United Kingdom, a 2014 study found that just 17 percent of familial DNA searches 'resulted in the identification of a relative of the true offender.'"
Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey is a strong supporter of familial searches, calling them “an innovative approach to investigating challenging cases, particularly cold cases where the victims are women or children and traditional investigative tactics fail to yield a solid suspect," Wired reports.
"I think what we're looking at is a series of totally reasonable steps by law enforcement," NYU professor Murphy told the New Orleans Advocate.
"But it has this really Orwellian state feeling to it, and it is a huge indictment of private genetic testing companies and the degree to which people seamlessly share that information online."
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