Forensic Genealogy and Privacy

with Katelyn Ringrose of the Future of Privacy Forum

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, DNA is generally used to solve crimes by linking DNA offender profiles through DNA databases. And while genealogy test kits are in high demand, what are the privacy implications for consumers?

Katelyn Ringrose of the Future of Privacy Forum joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss forensic genealogy and privacy.

Posted on:

November 04, 2019

Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: For more than 30 years, DNA profiling has played a significant role in law enforcement. Fast-forward to today, the consumer market for DNA test kits is booming. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. In 2018 a consumer DNA testing company worked with the FBI to identify an alleged serial killer. While DNA testing is helping to reduce the number of unsolved crimes in the U.S., advocates are expressing concern over privacy issues. Katelyn Ringrose, the Christopher Wolf Diversity Law Fellow, at the Future of Privacy Forum joins me to discuss forensic genealogy and privacy. Katelyn, thank you for being here.

Ringrose: Thank you for having me, Tetiana.

Anderson: So how do we go from me being interested in my family history, submitting my DNA to one of these testing companies, and then law enforcement using it to find criminals?

Ringrose: It's a very difficult issue, and it's one that we ponder a great deal of the Future of Privacy Forum. Consumer understanding differs quite a bit from law enforcement use of these websites. Consumers might utilize these websites to find their ancestry, to learn more about distant relatives, and maybe to address potential health issues. Whereas law enforcement are using these websites in order to solve cold cases. And so there is a disconnect there and it's one that we need to address. Anderson: But in the fine print of these things, aren't I agreeing to allow my genetic material to be used for whatever this particular company wants to use it for or for whoever they want to give it to?

Ringrose: It depends on the company. So the Future of Privacy Forum, we've created a set of best practices for consumer genetic testing websites and some services have signed on to that. And when they sign on, they say that law enforcement can only utilize their websites if there's a legal order. So a warrant based on probable cause or a subpoena. Other sites simply have not. And a lot of consumers just don't read that fine print.

Anderson: So that's one thing. And I know that you guys say that this is a sort of slippery slope for law enforcement to be using this material. But what are some of the other things that your organization is doing to really ensure that there is privacy here?

Ringrose: We're asking the Department of Justice to do two things. First elucidate their stance on warrants. So we ask that they have a warrant based on probable cause before going in to these databases. And we also ask that they limit their use of familial matching. Right now a great deal of states have disallowed familial matching on law-enforcement databases like CODIS. And there's no reason that law enforcement should get around CODIS regulations by using consumer genetic services.

Anderson: So in essence you're saying that the Department of Justice, which is obviously the federal level here, is just not doing enough to ensure the privacy rights of the public.

Ringrose: Recently the Department of Justice issued a interim policy and it is the first of its kind. It's very landmark. It does have some positive aspects. First it limits the problematic practice of law enforcement pretending to be someone looking for relatives by uploading crime-scene DNA. And it also limits law enforcement for searching for people based on their medical conditions. These are positive aspects of the policy, but it's an 8-page policy and it really lacks a great deal of attention paid to individual civil liberties.

Anderson: So speaking of the individual, what is it the consumer needs to be doing? Like what do I need to be doing when I'm going on these test sites ensure that my material's being used the way that I would prefer?

Ringrose: It's a difficult question. The onus really shouldn't be on the individual consumer to go and read every privacy policy. The onus should be on the Department of Justice and our law enforcement to follow the tenets of the Fourth Amendment, which guard against unreasonable searches and seizures. And so we're asking the Department of Justice to elucidate their standing rather than consumers to have to be constantly aware. If consumers do want to be aware, they can go to the Future of Privacy Forum website and see which services has signed on to our best practices.

Anderson: So you guys obviously have a long way to go. It sounds like you've made some progress, but in a perfect world, what would you need to see to make you comfortable with what's going on?

Ringrose: We would need to see the proper attention paid to American and consumer privacy rights overall. We would need to see that law enforcement understands that they need to have warrants in order to access these sites and to make sure that their definition of consent isn't just rooted in that user who is using the website but also the idea that all family members of that user are now implicated. Anderson: Katelyn Ringrose, thank you.

Ringrose: Thank you so much for having me.

Anderson: And thanks to you for watching as well. For more great conversations from leaders in your community and around the nation, visit I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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