Feb 4, 2020 - Technology

Ancestry.com refused court request to give police DNA database access

Patrick Meeker show his family tree on Ancestry.com, June 24, 2016.

The Ancestry.com site. Photo: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Ancestry.com refused to comply with a search warrant pushed by a Pennsylvania court for police to gain access to its database of about 16 million DNA profiles, the company confirmed to Axios via email Monday night.

Why it matters: Per Axios' Kim Hart, firms that trace customers' ancestry have amassed huge DNA databases. Some have agreed to share access with law enforcement. The privacy questions this raises could become a "Supreme Court issue," retired investigator Paul Holes, who led the 2018 Golden State Killer case that used genetic data to identify the suspect, earlier told BuzzFeed, which first reported Ancestry's stand.

  • Ancestry hasn't received any follow-up from law enforcement on the Pennsylvania matter, but protecting customers' privacy is the firm's "highest priority," the company said in a statement issued to news outlets including Axios.
  • When asked by Axios if Ancestry would fight such a case if it were to end up in the Supreme Court, the spokeswoman said, "[W]e will also always advocate for our customers’ privacy and seek to narrow the scope of any compelled disclosure, or even eliminate it entirely."

Details: The search warrant seeking access to Ancestry’s DNA database was documented in its 2019 transparency report released last week.

  • "The warrant was improperly served on Ancestry and we did not provide any access or customer data in response," the firm said in its statement.
"Not only will we not share customer information with law enforcement unless compelled to by valid legal process, such as a court order or search warrant, we will also always advocate for our customers' privacy and seek to narrow the scope of any compelled disclosure, or even eliminate it entirely."
— Ancestry statement

The big picture: Genetic testing companies that have been amenable to police search requests include the Verogen-owned GEDmatch "and the database run by FamilyTreeDNA," BuzzFeed notes.

  • FamilyTreeDNA apologized for not disclosing this agreement to consumers, the New York Times reported in February last year. Ancestry's rival 23andMe told BuzzFeed it "received no warrants to search its database as of the end of 2019."

Of note: Drug makers and app developers have also sought access to genetic testing companies' DNA database information.

  • Both Ancestry and 23andMe — the largest companies that, combined, have DNA data of 15 million users — both share anonymized genetic data with outside researchers and companies with customers' "informed consent."

Go deeper: Genetic testing firms share your DNA data more than you think

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