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Judge Says Police Can Search Company's Entire DNA Database

Published: November 9, 2019
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A Florida detective successfully obtained a warrant to search the company GEDmatch’s full database of user-provided genetic information, even if users had opted out of appearing in police search results, HuffPost has confirmed. 

The warrant, signed by a judge in Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit Court in July, will likely earn praise from law enforcement and criticism from privacy advocates wary of how DNA databases could be abused.

It appears to be the first warrant of its kind. Orlando Police Department Detective Michael Fields disclosed its existence during the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Chicago last week, according to The New York Times

Fields told the Times that the warrant has generated new leads but no arrests.

Public awareness of GEDmatch, a genealogy website and genetic database, rose sharply in April 2018, when California authorities announced they had arrested Joseph James DeAngelo ― the man they believed to be the Golden State Killer ― using the site’s publicly searchable data. DeAngelo is thought to have committed around 50 rapes and at least 13 murders in the 1970s and 1980s.

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Cops have discovered a new source of useful third-party records: DNA databases. Millions of people have voluntarily handed over personal information to a number of services in exchange for info on medical markers or distant family members.

Technology that was once only seen in dystopian science fiction is rapidly infecting real life. Two means of collecting personal data – DNA databases and facial recognition software – are forming an unholy alliance, and the privacy implications could be devastating.

Cops are increasingly turning to commercial gene-testing services to solve crimes, using a process called "genetic genealogy" that uses the records of people who are near-matches for DNA from crime scenes to zero in on suspects; that's how they caught the Golden State Killer, but cops don't just ask genetics services for data when they're after killers, sometimes they deputize these services to help them solve petty crimes.

At-home DNA testing site FamilyTreeDNA — which was widely criticized for working with the FBI without telling its customers — will now offer users the option to prevent law enforcement from accessing their data.

The decision by a prominent consumer DNA-testing company to share data with federal law enforcement means investigators have access to genetic information linked to hundreds of millions of people.

Just one week ago, we warned that the government — helped by Congress (which adopted legislation allowing police to collect and test DNA immediately following arrests), President Trump (who signed the Rapid DNA Act into law), the courts (which have ruled that police can routinely take DNA samples from people who are arrested but not yet convicted of a crime), and local police agencies (which are chomping at the bit to acquire this new crime-fighting gadget) — was embarking on a diabolical campaign to create a nation of suspects predicated on a massive national DNA database.

Recently, a genealogy service provided law enforcement with the information they needed to locate a murder suspect they'd been hunting for over forty years. GEDMatch admitted it was the service investigators used to find a familial match to DNA samples it had taken from crime scenes. This revelation led people to question how private their DNA data was when shared with genealogy services. The answer is, of course, not very, what with the purpose of these services being the matching of DNA info from thousands or millions of unrelated individuals.

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