On 31 January, 2019, we learned from Buzzfeed that Family Tree DNA had allowed the FBI to use their customer database for criminal investigations. In fact, they had even changed their Terms of Service in December, without notifying said customers as those very same Terms obligated them to do.
Two days ago, Buzzfeed published yet another remarkable story: Family Tree DNA has partnered with Bode Technology, the largest forensic DNA testing company in the United States, to expose their 1 million or so autosomal DNA customers to even more law enforcement searches.
All without informing their customers beforehand or getting their consent.
Currently, the only way to opt out of police searches at Family Tree DNA is to remove your DNA tests from the matching system, meaning you sacrifice the service for which you paid.
As Usual, I Have Questions
- After the recent FBI controversy, the president of Family Tree DNA emailed a Letter to Our Customers in which he said—in all capital letters and bold-face print—”WE WILL DO A BETTER JOB OF COMMUNICATING WITH YOU.” I received that email on February 3rd. Less than 2 weeks later, we learned about the Bode Technology agreement from the media. When Bennett Greenspan promised his customers to do a better job of communicating, did he mean it?
- The same Letter to Our Customers ends with “Our plan is to create a panel of citizen genealogist advisors who will work with us as we focus on how to make your FamilyTreeDNA experience the best one available.” Has this panel been created? Who is on it? What financial ties do they have to the company? Will they have any authority to protect customer privacy?
- How much is Family Tree DNA charging Bode Technology for access?
- If Family Tree DNA partners with Parabon’s forensic unit, as expected, how much will Parabon pay them?
- What other corporate entities have access to Family Tree DNA’s database, or might have in the future? For what purposes? Will the company tell us?
- Judy Russell writes, “This latest disclosure — that a commercial firm is getting access to this information without customer consent — makes it all the more imperative that Family Tree DNA act immediately and responsibly to change its access-by-police system to opt-in.” An opt-in database would be a fraction of the current size and, therefore, less effective for criminal searches. How would Family Tree DNA ensure that investigators were not using the main database as well?
- Will all law enforcement agents (and civilian genealogists working with them) openly pledge to only use genetic databases in which each individual has knowingly and explicitly opted in to that use?
No such database currently exists.