Privacy

Privacy and Your Ancestry – The Implications of Sharing Data

PrivacyIs Privacy dead?  If not, it is certainly on life support due to prevalence of data mining, AI, complicated click through contracts, etc., and it does not even have to be your action that gets you in trouble.  Consider the recently solved cold case of the Golden State Killer.

California investigators in April announced a stunning breakthrough in a decades-old cold case: They used DNA from the killer and an ancestry website to identify a former police officer as a suspect in 12 homicides and 45 rapes. The same site, GEDmatch.com, is also credited in helping Seattle investigators identify a suspect in a 30-year-old rape and homicide.

The high-profile Golden State Killer case is causing experts to debate the privacy implications of using genealogical data from open-source sites, like GEDmatch.com, in criminal investigations.  There are no laws prohibiting detectives from using the data, but law enforcement experts are concerned about potential abuses of this investigative method. Others have argued the tactic represents an invasion of privacy – but does it?

GEDmatch.com asks users to submit their own DNA for test results, effectively crowd-sourcing family trees. The company’s terms and policy statement suggest users address any privacy concerns by “privatizing” genealogical data before uploading it to the GEDmatch.com — possibly by changing the names of any living relatives – or simply not uploading the data at all. The site also says it cannot guarantee a user’s information will not be accessed for unintended means. 

The investigators on the case created a fake profile and did not notify the site’s owners, who have said they were unaware of GEDmatch.com’s involvement in the case until the arrest. Law enforcement and genetic genealogists didn’t waste any time after public DNA databases led to the Golden State Killer suspect last month. A forensics company announced a service to do this analysis in mass, and the DNA database GEDmatch.com has already changed its privacy policy to officially allow use by law enforcement. This is very important – even if you’re not in the databases, your cousins or siblings could easily be. 

The forensics company, Parabon NanoLabs, told Buzzfeed that they had uploaded about 100 crime scene samples to GEDmatch.com in search of culprits and unidentified victims of crimes since the solving of the Golden State Killer. Their service takes samples provided by law enforcement and processes the DNA in a similar way to what 23andMe and Ancestry provides. The result is a data file that can upload to GEDmatch.com.

GEDmatch.com’s updated policy explicitly allows law enforcement to search the database, with a few restrictions:

When you upload Raw Data to GEDmatch.com, you agree that the Raw Data is one of the following:

  1. Your DNA;

  2. DNA of a person for whom you are a legal guardian;

  3. DNA of a person who has granted you specific authorization to upload their DNA to GEDmatch.com;

  4. DNA of a person known by you to be deceased;

  5. DNA obtained and authorized by law enforcement to either: (1) identify a perpetrator of a violent crime against another individual; or (2) identify remains of a deceased individual;

  6. An artificial DNA kit (if and only if: (1) it is intended for research purposes; and (2) it is not used to identify anyone in the GEDmatch.com database); or

  7. DNA obtained from an artifact (if and only if: (1) you have a reasonable belief that the Raw Data is DNA from a previous owner or user of the artifact rather than from a living individual; and (2) that previous owner or user of the artifact is known to you to be deceased).

GEDmatch.com can change the policy at any time. 

On the one hand, it’s pretty cool that murderers and rapists can be brought to justice, and families can get closure on their missing loved ones. On the other, I never agreed to put my DNA in a law enforcement database—but now snippets of it are probably already there thanks to a third or fourth or fifth cousins who had no idea their Ancestry file or 23andMe file would ever be used this way.

Serving justice and getting closure for families on their missing loved ones is a noble cause.  However, what if a person never agreed to put their DNA in a law enforcement data base?  Some have lost control of that right due to distant relatives however….  

So, what are the take aways when it comes to maintaining privacy?

  1. Privacy and ethics are very complex and there are many sides to this coin

  2. Action of others may lead to consequences to you which you may not have considered

  3. Sharing data can have unintended consequences

  4. Read the legal language

  5. If a government structure or fabric of society changes, all the information available on each of us can be used in a multitude of ways

  6. Algorithms and correlations will only get more and more sophisticated

  7. Just as in the book/movie Minority Report, where suspects are arrested BEFORE they commit the crime – we can get close to that being a possible reality with technology advancements! 

  8. Be an educated consumer and mind what you put in the public domain.  It can affect you and those around you.

If you want to find out more about privacy and how Vaporstream can assist you with gaining more control over your privacy, contact us or ask to see Vaporstream in action.

 Contributor: Galina Datskovsky