FamilyTreeDNA is providing their database to the FBI
February 4, 2019 9:19 PM   Subscribe

Family Tree DNA, one of the largest private genetic testing companies whose home-testing kits enable people to trace their ancestry and locate relatives, is working with the FBI and allowing agents to search its vast genealogy database in an effort to solve violent crime cases, BuzzFeed News reports. Under the previously undisclosed cooperation with Family Tree, the FBI has gained access to more than a million DNA profiles from the company, most of which were uploaded before the company’s customers had any knowledge of its relationship with the FBI.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet (41 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
There are a million potential glib "what did you expect" variant responses to this and usually I'd conjure one up myself, but honestly... I can't even. It's fucking disgusting. Arrest me with good cause and get a fucking warrant to search my DNA. Fwiw, I'm UK-based so not directly affected, but there's plenty of comparable illiberal governmental bollocks over here.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 9:34 PM on February 4 [19 favorites]


How many cases will get thrown out due to lack of a search warrant?
posted by Toddles at 9:43 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


Well, that's one way to destroy your business. Who in their right mind would read about this, lick the envelope, and send them a cheek swab?
posted by Windopaene at 9:48 PM on February 4


Broke: Send your DNA to @23andMe, deanonymizing your relatives and descendants

Woke: Don’t send DNA to @23andMe but risk a relative defecting

Bespoke: Use CRISPR to encode a computer virus in your DNA, send DNA to @23andMe and Stuxnet their database


Malware hidden in a strand of DNA hijacks the computer that analyzes that particular gene sequence
posted by JamesBay at 9:57 PM on February 4 [61 favorites]


The thing is depending on the contact with the FBI and already over a million samples how successful are they going to be in the future? It isn't a service people use twice. My guess is that it's about time to get out of this buisness.
posted by AlexiaSky at 9:58 PM on February 4


One of my partners friends gave us both 23andme kits.

Hers came back with a not terribly surprising analysis, and mine came back with an I thought faintly accusatory declaration that it was uninterpretable and a new kit, which I never got around to sending in, but I'd still like to know all that stuff.

I followed their instructions to the letter though, who knows whether the second one would have worked any better?
posted by jamjam at 11:11 PM on February 4


This is a shame. The most prominent DNA family-relationship sleuth, Cece Moore, has had a longstanding relationship with FT DNA. Her choice to embrace crime solving via consumer DNA testing jeopardizes the ability of a huge swathe of American adoptees to find who their birth families are, and therefore to determine their birth identity, a human right guaranteed under the UN Human Rights Charter, a document to which the US is not a signatory.

Pop culture awareness of the implications of widespread DNA testing have begun to bubble up into pop culture via DNA-oriented heritage and reunion TV shows such as Who Do You Think You Are or Long Lost Family and fictionalized shows about problematized family and individual identity such as The Fosters and This is Us (and Star Trek Discovery, for the love of all the children of Sarek).

In general, I would say that these shows are seeking to present a model narrative for DNA reunion, or recognition or whatever term you prefer. The models are integrative and redemptive and I would say come from a place of love and hope. The reality is that adoptees face many potential outcomes in seeking to determine their birth identity, and that the outcome can be both fraught and fatal, as has been the case in two instances in my own adult-adoptee support group here in Seattle within the past five years.

We have a right to that information. I unequivocally support violating any law in the service of establishing birth identity, which I understand to be a fundamental aspect of human rights. US law is not in accordance with this view. We, both adoptees and natal family, often need help navigating the experience of integrating our birth identity into all of our lives. Adoptees in particular need support in understanding the reactions we are subject to from our natal families.

Consumer DNA testing is the most reliable method that adoptees have to develop information regarding their natal families, which they may choose or not choose to pursue with regard to contact. For many of us it will be the first time we have ever had the opportunity or the experience of meeting a person who is a natal family member. We may not choose to pursue contact, and THAT IS OUR RIGHT. The law in the US now is a patchwork. I beleive that the laws of the US are in error in denying us our right to know who our biological forebears are.

FT DNA's work with the FBI can only intensify the already-increasing mistrust of consumer DNA testing services. It is a terrible miscarriage of justice that these services should be abused by law enforcement to such an end. The law in our country separates children from their birth identities on a global basis and has done so beyond the span of my lifetime. The law is wrong in this, and favors the wealthy and powerful. By using consumer DNA databases as a cold case tool, law enforcement inevitably will increase consumer skepticism and resistance to these services.

Adoptees in closed adoption or in the vast majority of international adoptions have been stripped of a fundamental human right by the interaction of American capitalism and biological need. Please test with a consumer DNA service and interact honestly with DNA relations that inquire as to how they may be related.
posted by mwhybark at 12:45 AM on February 5 [26 favorites]


people are always like oh lol who would be so stupid as to do something as ~*fantastically moronic*~ as this? well. i will tell you. in the past: the hundreds of thousands of people who were taken from their indigenous families in the US and canada and given to white ones. currently: the thousands of kids who were stolen from their central and south american families by US border patrol and given to white families. the state has provided no resources in the past and will certainly do nothing today or in the future. some people have no other choice.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:49 AM on February 5 [47 favorites]


well, perhaps not "any law". The ones I had in mind were the ones involving sealed records regarding birth certificates and the like. Pay your taxes, don't steal shit, don't use violence etc etc
posted by mwhybark at 12:50 AM on February 5


As far as I can figure out, this is what actually happened:

1) FTNDA has processed samples sent to them by the FBI, in the same way that they would process samples sent by any customer
2) FBI (or other law enforcement agencies) have the same access to the database that other customers do. If they want anything further, they need to get a court order.
3) FTDNA has changed their terms and conditions so that law enforcement agencies have to notify them if they're uploading data.
posted by Leon at 12:50 AM on February 5 [24 favorites]


If you want to find your birth parents, or be found by them, then somebody needs to make their DNA profile public. Maybe you can figure out a law that stops law enforcement from matching against that big, public database. But I don't think you can do it reliably at the company level.
posted by Leon at 12:53 AM on February 5


Adoptees in closed adoption or in the vast majority of international adoptions have been stripped of a fundamental human right by the interaction of American capitalism and biological need.

THANK YOU. As an adoptee in reunion, who used 23and Me (but it didn’t result in my reunion), and as a former open records activist in the early days of Bastard Nation, if I could favorite your comment 1000 times I would.

What most Americans don’t know—including, I would bet, most who will comment here—is that most US adoptees are legally prevented from ever seeing their original birth certificate. Upon adoption—not upon bio parent surrender—a whole new birth certificate is created that replaces the original one, which is kept under lock and key for all time.

As a result, my birth certificate is a lie. It says my adoptive mother gave birth to me at 8:17am. No forceps were used. And that it was her second time giving birth.

Reality? My adoptive mother knew by puberty that she’d never be able to get pregnant, she never gave birth, and she was not only nowhere near the hospital where I was born, but she didn’t even meet me until picking me up from temporary foster care when I was two months old.

The closed adoption process was triggered by an adoption contract that most directly affected me, but that I was not a party to, did not give my consent to, did not sign, and wouldn’t have been of age to comprehend anyway.

Children illegally and unethically “separated” aka stolen from their biological families during the US Baby Scoop Era (or ripped from their refugee families at the southern US border, or stolen from their indigenous families and given to white families, or adopted to white families out of the US foster care system when what we should be doing is healing the structural racism and inequality that feeds poor children of color to the foster care system) grow up without the same rights as people who grow up with their families of origin. And we will take our human rights back however and whenever we can.

By any means necessary.

If DNA testing is the way we have to work around unjust laws suppressing our erased identities, then we will. Privacy be damned—insofar as no one has the right to keep my own information “private” from me. In fact, in Doe v Sundquist in TN in the 90s, a federal court ruled that no one is guaranteed a right to privacy by the constitution, and that a birth is a public act, not a private one, because you are producing another human.

Back to FT DNA and the FBI: Expecting the government to abuse the constitution may be commonplace at the moment, but to blame the citizenry for being taken advantage of (“What did you expect anyway?”) is deeply cynical and puts us in a defensive position rather than a position of demanding our constitutional rights.

Giving away their customers’ DNA without a warrant or our consent is wrong. Period.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 3:27 AM on February 5 [25 favorites]


I've seen some mention of mandatory DNA testing in the Uyghur regions of China, accompanying the concentration camps and other dystopian stuff going on there, but haven't seen a comprehensive account of how many countries around the world don't provide a choice in the matter. It seems feasible that authoritarian places might quickly develop much more comprehensive DNA databases than those of private firms elsewhere. (Though perhaps with the same companies' help...)
posted by XMLicious at 4:43 AM on February 5


Does anyone else have a childhood memory of the FBI coming to their school and fingerprinting the students as part of the "missing child" moral panic in the 1980s? I remember being at least a little upset that my parents agreed to let them do this to me.
posted by exogenous at 4:51 AM on February 5 [29 favorites]


Any use of data like this by the FBI will necessarily involve estimations of the statistical certainty of any match that will necessarily be very difficult to do appropriately well, even if we assume good faith, given the complexity of the questions involved. Statistical analysis of SNP data like this can indeed provide very certain answers, with estimations of certainty we can be very sure about, to questions like what the FBI will want to ask so long as they are done well, but I sure as hell do not trust the FBI to not fuck this up.

Its also saying something that this is among the less creepy things being done or attempted with commercial DNA testing data, and all of the companies in this space are super fucking creepy.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:52 AM on February 5 [6 favorites]


Yes, I remember being fingerprinted at school around the age of 6. I also remember that an ID card was printed for my parents with a picture of me and a picture of my thumbprint and index finger. My Dad and Mom still carry their copies in their respective wallets, even though it has been 24 years.
posted by all about eevee at 5:26 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


> Giving away their customers’ DNA without a warrant or our consent is wrong. Period.

Do you understand that neither of those things are happening in this case?
posted by Leon at 5:39 AM on February 5 [10 favorites]


For-profit companies have no business giving genetic information, arguably the most personal information each person has, to government entities without the explicit written consent of the paying party.
posted by Schadenfreude at 5:45 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


Does anyone else have a childhood memory of the FBI coming to their school and fingerprinting the students as part of the "missing child" moral panic in the 1980s?

Yes and I also remember my dad, who at that same age watched his own dad get hauled off to bergen belsen, storming the fuck into my school's admin office with the notification letter and probably threatening to eat their children but idk bc I don't speak hungarian outside of "give me that entire dobos torte right now". Anyway no elementary school has my fingerprints so I am ready for crimes.
posted by poffin boffin at 6:51 AM on February 5 [37 favorites]


"give me that entire dobos torte right now"

Huh, I googled that and it looks just like what I would call a Smith Island Cake. Interesting stuff! Sorry for the derail but I know MetaFilter likes its cake.

Anyway no elementary school has my fingerprints so I am ready for crimes.

Yeah at the time I couldn't articulate my concerns about privacy so my argument to my parents relied on the notion that the FBI's possession of my fingerprints would stymie a potential career as a criminal mastermind.
posted by exogenous at 7:40 AM on February 5 [4 favorites]


Do you understand that neither of those things are happening in this case?
Do you understand that law enforcement in general, and the FBI specifically has a long history of disregarding guidelines and laws? That the FBI specifically will happily use and invent fraudulent techniques to achieve their objectives?
posted by b1tr0t at 8:13 AM on February 5 [5 favorites]


I am fond of telling friends and acquaintances that I am not real scared of some guys in a cave in Afghanistan vs. some guys that are the most powerful government in the word, which is why I am strongly in favor of limits on the power of said government vs. releasing the beast to protect us from drugs/terrorism/video game cheaters/whatevs. Unfortunately, the “if you don’t have anything to hide think of the children” crowd are kind of the default U.S. voting block, so I suspect the DNA boat has sailed or is at least fully loaded and heading for the channel.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 8:27 AM on February 5 [4 favorites]


Bespoke: Use CRISPR to encode a computer virus in your DNA, send DNA to @23andMe and Stuxnet their database

Do you want gray goo? Because that's how you get gray goo!

(For years my curiosity about genetic ancestry has warred with my paranoia over ownership of the data. In this instance, I'm glad my paranoia won out.)
posted by octobersurprise at 8:32 AM on February 5


That the FBI specifically will happily use and invent fraudulent techniques to achieve their objectives?

So what is this post and conversation about then? The actual things that happened between the FBI and this DNA company? Or all the general/hypothetical abuses by the FBI happening in people’s heads? Sounds like for most of us it’s the latter.
posted by sideshow at 8:33 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]


> That the FBI specifically will happily use and invent fraudulent techniques to achieve their objectives?

What fraudulent technique could they use against this database?

(Unless it's lying to get a court order, because there's no real defence against that).
posted by Leon at 8:35 AM on February 5


border patrol made up an entire fake university to catch visa overstayers. the sky is literally the fucking limit on the creepy fucking fraudulent entrapment ways the US government will enthusiastically try to harm people anywhere and everywhere on earth.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:38 AM on February 5 [10 favorites]


(I'm wondering about the application of homomorphic encryption in this space, but this probably isn't the place to discuss it).
posted by Leon at 8:38 AM on February 5


1) FTNDA has processed samples sent to them by the FBI, in the same way that they would process samples sent by any customer
2) FBI (or other law enforcement agencies) have the same access to the database that other customers do. If they want anything further, they need to get a court order.


oooooh boy. This almost sounds like the FBI got very clever and sent in suspect samples to a private DNA testing service (probably multiple such services) hoping to get a match, and then use that for probable cause? But that's...insane?

Did they misrepresent themselves as, like, not the FBI? Do the TOS cover the horrifying possibility that someone could send in your DNA without your consent?

And under what possible circumstances does this even, like...make logistical sense? The commercial labs aren't just working of swabs like the police do on television. From what I recall, these services require kind of a lot of spit or whatever in a vial. They need it because people have varying amounts of whatever in said spit. Has that changed? If it hasn't, what the fuck?

Access to the database with an FBI-tested DNA profile was what I assumed was happening (and still has its own implications), but having a private company run the tests on samples provided by the FBI seems insane for about one million reasons.
posted by schadenfrau at 8:40 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


Highly recommend Bear Brook, specifically the two part Bloodline episode, about how DNA databases are used to help solve cold case murders.

Really, start from the beginning, though. It's fascinating (and describes some gory acts, so be warned).
posted by look busy at 8:41 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


> Do the TOS cover the horrifying possibility that someone could send in your DNA without your consent?

Now that is an excellent question. Would it be identity theft?

> probably multiple such services

Reading between the lines of the FTDNA CEO's announcement, that has been happening, and FTDNA are trying to move towards transparency.
posted by Leon at 8:43 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


I have no specialized knowledge about this kind of investigative technique and my perspective is a lay one. In general I'm increasingly in the boat that is fine with whatever a majority of society feels like they want. So here if legislation was passed restricting or outlawing the practice that wouldn't bother me. This would possibly change if someone I knew was hurt by a serial offender, a family member was kidnapped, etc. If there's no such legislation then using it doesn't bother me either. These are crimes - like the Golden State Killer as mentioned in the article - that are essentially never going to be solved otherwise. Society has to decide whether it's worth letting particularly violent criminals be free forever in order to prevent whatever problems might crop up down the road.
Now that is an excellent question. Would it be identity theft?
No, why would it be? These are samples collected from crime scenes. If I murder or rape someone and leave DNA behind at the crime scene I don't have any kind of expectation of privacy regarding that evidence.
posted by firebrick at 8:54 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]


firebrick: If someone's been uploading samples on the sly, they may have had to declare it was their data in a clickthrough agreement. That's the point fraud would have occurred. I think.
posted by Leon at 8:58 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


There may have been a TOS violation (although the article doesn't indicate anything of the sort) but I find it very unlikely it would be fraud. With the very significant caveat that I am completely unfamiliar with federal fraud laws, I have a hard time seeing how it would be criminal or theft. Crimes typically require some kind of criminal intent, and "solving murders" just doesn't fit. At most I would expect some kind of an exceedingly minor civil breach.
posted by firebrick at 9:08 AM on February 5


The FTDNA commercial testing kits require two cheek swabs, shipped in their little tubes with their special solvent or whatever. It also requires a release form:
The Release Form is your written consent that allows FTDNA to share your name and email address with someone who matches your genetic fingerprint exactly.
The claim that the FBI was using it as any customer would implies that the FBI would have to acquire two cheek swabs from whoever -- not a DNA profile? and not something obtained from a thirty year old envelope or whatever -- but even then, the website's description of the TOS (which might not be accurate) seems to imply that matches will only be revealed to someone who matches your genetic fingerprint. Not, crucially, law enforcement officials who are sending in other people's DNA.

Also: aren't there evidentiary problems with having a private company test your evidence? Like...is it sufficient for probable cause only, or...?

I don't see how the FBI could be using this as reported without fucking up due process or committing fraud. I'm suspicious of the reporting, at this point, too, because these seem like basic "but how does it actually work?" questions.
posted by schadenfrau at 9:09 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


Crime scene DNA is necessarily going to be very different from the stuff FTDNA usually works with. It's going to be older, more contaminated, and not in neat little vials. They're only going to have tiny amounts of it, and there may be evidentiary problems that will require special documentation. So crime scene DNA testing is certainly not going to fit into FTDNA's regular routine. Maybe FTDNA has a specialised lab for it, or maybe the FBI is getting it analysed elsewhere and only uploading the data, but the relationship between the FBI and FTDNA can't be as casual as the article implies.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:52 AM on February 5


If I murder or rape someone and leave DNA behind at the crime scene I don't have any kind of expectation of privacy regarding that evidence.

I'd like to take a moment on this one, because that's always the pitch (and the BuzzFeed article indeed makes it sound like FTDNA's cooperation is limited to "violent" crimes). But of course violent crime is the fig leaf that law enforcement has always used to advance its power -- in the FBI's case literally all the way back to the Dillinger years when J. Edgar was just another ambitious bureaucrat.

Whatever the FBI's game may be in this specific case (and as others have said, the only thing we can say is that the FBI's public statements are not to be trusted), US law enforcement knows exactly what they want to do with DNA:
  • Police use DNA to solve property crimes (Colorado, 2008) ("[T]he average sentence in property crime cases using DNA evidence jumped to 14 years, compared with 1 1/2 years for those without DNA.")
  • Using DNA to Solve Property Crimes (NIJ, 2009) ("The study demonstrated that collecting DNA in property crimes, such as burglaries, is cost effective and dramatically increases the numbers of burglary suspects identified.")
  • Crime lab to start DNA testing on some property crimes (Bakersfield, 2009) ("While [a] violent crime case would still take precedence, burglaries and car thefts will be squeezed in when blood or saliva is there for the taking, [the district attorney] said.")
  • DNA forensics helping crack more property crimes (2014) ("Across Minnesota, scientists tested for DNA in more than 2,000 property crime investigations this year, according to the lab directors who oversee Minnesota’s three forensic labs accredited to test DNA. ")
Protecting property rights and the socioeconomic status quo has always been the name of the game, and we should anticipate that any further expansion of law enforcement agencies' access to DNA will be used consistent with those agencies' purpose.
posted by shenderson at 12:26 PM on February 5 [11 favorites]


Private companies aren't (typically) doing whole genome sequencing on customer samples (unless you're paying several grand for it - and proper analysis is going to cost more. Way more. They look at a relatively small portion of the DNA that is known to be polymorphic - but there are a lot of such regions.

There are legitimate commercial services that do targeted or whole-genome sequencing of your genome for pharmacogenomic purposes, but even if the science is legitimate, the utility is sketchy. Certain drugs require genome interrogation to determine initial dosage, but the common ones use qPCR allelic discrimination or sequence just part of one or two genes. But that's neither here not there.

The "spit" that you submit is really crude, but you don't need very much of it so it's usually overkill. A buccal (inside of the cheek) swab with a clean q-tip-like swab works more reliably.

Forensic DNA sequencing is sensitive enough (because the DNA is amplified during the process) such that waving a used toothbrush (even if cleaned) in saline, or the residual spit left on a chicken wing, or a paper cup of water that you drank from is enough to get a viable sample.

The commercial services typically won't be able to process such forensic samples, but if you/FBI/whatever knew exactly which sequences/regions the commercial services are using, a forensic lab can recreate those sequences and compare it to a commercial database - if they have permission.

There are law-enforcement DNA databases, but they're almost certainly looking at different regions of the human genome than FT or 23&M type commercial operations, and the markers that the commercial ops use are typically closely held trade secrets.
posted by porpoise at 4:33 PM on February 5 [4 favorites]


One of the things we do in my lab — with cattle — is pedigree discovery using SNP genotypes. There is considerably more heterogeneity in human populations, which reduces accuracy somewhat, but it’s really pretty straightforward. It’s also why I prefer not to get genotyped, myself.

porpoise, I think that most of the genotyping labs use similar platforms, probably Affymetrix or Illumina arrays, with some custom markers from service to service.
posted by wintermind at 4:53 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


porpoise: FTDNA can also do optional mtDNA and Y-DNA analysis (I think it's $600+ for the full suite). I think they're a step ahead of the other large providers (which last I read use Illumina v5 chips, as wintermind said - 640k SNPs, 50k custom). Their database will be correspondingly richer.

There's one small provider that offers analysis from stamps or envelopes, which is, from a geneaology PoV, actually more useful than getting yourself tested.
posted by Leon at 10:43 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


but even if the science is legitimate

Which you can certainly argue about: many of the specific polymorphisms identified by these screens come from GWAS studies that sample enormous populations, usually only of Western European or Han Chinese descent, check huge swathes of genome, and only find a few SNPs associated with very small effects. Consequently different pharmacogenetic services will often test for and/or provide to you different subsets of SNPs in the literature in their analysis, depending on what the companies think is interesting.
posted by sciatrix at 5:02 AM on February 6


FTDNA allows/allowed you to upload your raw SNP data from rival services such as 23andme to get matches, so it's possible the police lab did their own SNP sequencing and just uploaded the resulting data to FTDNA.

This is also how the DNA matching site GEDmatch (Used to catch the Golden State Killer) works - they don't do any sequencing, they just match between raw data files submitted by users.
posted by ymgve at 5:20 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]


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