A letter to the editor — genetic data and law enforcement bias

The Editorial Board

This letter to the editor was submitted by Max Blankfeld, the chief operating officer of Gene By Gene/FamilyTree DNA, regarding an article published by The Ticker‘s science section about the company sharing genetic data to law enforcement. 

FamilyTreeDNA does not share genetic data with law enforcement. It is also true that FamilyTreeDNA does allow law enforcement to submit crime-scene DNA to its matching database. 

The fact that both statements are true has confounded the media, resulting in incorrect and misleading reporting, as was the case with The Ticker Science article titled, “Is Testing Your Ancestry Safe?” FamilyTreeDNA matching database does not share genetic data with any third party, including law enforcement. 

The DNA matching process is completely automated and the only information shared between DNA matches — for customers who consent to participate in the matching process — is a public profile information controlled by the customer and the estimated relationship between matches based on the number of shared centimorgans. 

FamilyTreeDNA does not share, sell or barter the genetic data of its customers with any third party. 

In the year 2000, FamilyTreeDNA, the pioneer of the Direct-to-Consumer genetic testing, started offering a service that allows people to find relatives and ancestral origins. 

This was geared towards genealogists, who after encountering a roadblock with their traditional genealogical tools, resorted to the matching tool that we developed, which allows two individuals to see if they have enough DNA in common to claim a close relationship. 

The success of this initiative not only led other companies to follow suit, but other groups of people started using it: adoptees who wanted to find biological relatives and ancestral origins, sperm- donor children who wanted to find half-siblings and more recently, law enforcement, who wanted to see if, through genetic matches to crime scene DNA, they could get hints that would lead them to the potential criminal or to identifying a victim. 

In the cases of murder or sexual assault, DNA matches provide an investigative lead for law enforcement to follow, enabling the identification of suspected perpetrators faster than ever before. 

In none of the above cases is the FamilyTreeDNA database “searched” or searchable. 

Each individual that tests with us has a password-protected page where they can only see those whose DNA has a minimum level of matching. When we realized that law enforcement was using this tool, FamilyTreeDNA could have simply turned a blind eye or been subject to subpoenas. 

Instead, we created a process for oversight through formal registration and submission of crime-scene samples. In conjunction with law enforcement and with the supervision of a Citizen’s Panel composed of representatives of our customers and a professor of bioethics at the Baylor College of Medicine, we developed the Law Enforcement Guide, which is publicly available at https://www.familytreedna.com/legal/law- enforcement-guide. 

In the past week, law enforcement’s use of FamilyTreeDNA’s matching database has led to a serial murder confession in Clearfield, Utah and the release of a man who spent the last twenty years in a California jail for a crime he did not commit. 

In the 20 years since the inception of FamilyTreeDNA, we are proud to have helped thousands of customers find long lost relatives. 

Now, we are proud of fulfilling a public safety role in helping identify perpetrators of heinous crimes like rape and murder, identification of their victims and the exoneration of the falsely accused and imprisoned.