Protecting your DNA in the free market

Protecting your DNA in the free market

As a “hobbyist” genealogist for the last 10 years, there’s always been one branch of the family tree that’s been a bit of a mystery.

I started my hobby as the result of commercials at about this time of year–I remember my family watching “A Christmas Story” and these commercials were persistent, and my youngest son said “you should do that and find out about our family.”  So I did, and spent a good chunk of the remainder of our holiday typing in new names that were known, following the “leaves” which show you “hints”, and building out some branches of my family tree 10 or 12 generations back.

A few years later, I did the DNA test when Ancestry offered that up, and it pretty much confirmed the things I’d already found–we didn’t have any “surprises” that you sometimes hear about.

One branch of the tree was always a problem though–my maternal great-grandfather had come to the United States from Germany. We knew that. But we couldn’t figure out when (a lot of people with similar names had passed through Ellis Island, but the dates were never right in terms of his age).  We didn’t know if there was family back in Germany, or if the lore was correct.

My DNA sample eventually matched up to a fellow on the East Coast, who was rated as a 4th-6th cousin to me, and probably somewhere in that branch of the tree. But he didn’t have any more information than I did about family history.  The problem, of course, was that I was three generations removed from my great grandfather, and he was probably the same number of generations removed from anyone who might have been a sibling to my great grandfather, so we really couldn’t be sure based on the DNA how closely we might be connected, or what the connection was.

My grandmother has one remaining sibling–the youngest daughter of my great grandfather who made it here from Germany. In an effort to see if we could get any closer to solving the mystery, we had my great aunt submit her DNA–and the doors opened!  It’s a long story, but my 90-something great aunt has now had contact with a first cousin in Germany who she didn’t even know existed.  Turns out that my great grandfather’s age had somehow gotten changed in the records (by 15 years) between the time he arrived in the U.S., and the time that he married and had children (hence, the difficulty in finding his entry point–we were looking for someone younger than he was recorded when he arrived). My great-grandfather had a number of siblings–including some much younger than him–who remained in Germany.

All this is exciting work for those who are interested in where they came from. But now that we have started uploading our DNA to some of these massive databases, there is always a threat to our privacy.

Utah is preparing legislation which would limit the use of these commercial DNA databases by law enforcement.

“When people are surrendering their private DNA data for genealogical purposes, they’re not necessarily saying government can have an open view to whatever they want,” said Connor Boyack, the president of the Libertas Institute.

Boyack said he was sympathetic to law enforcement’s desire to solve a cold case, but for him it is a matter of privacy and consent. One person who sends in the DNA kit to a service also can’t consent for others.

“From law enforcement’s perspective, this is an amazing tool. Because you can solve all sorts of cold cases where you have a DNA sample and you have no clue who it is. Unfortunately, the ends don’t justify the means,” he said. “While we can sympathize greatly with wanting to find out who this victim was, who this perpetrator was, absolutely, it’s a balancing test between law enforcement’s efforts to solve crimes and people’s privacy.”

Think about it. If I submit my DNA to Ancestry for testing for genealogical purposes, I’m not giving permission for law enforcement to go trolling through the data for hits for an unsolved case–today or in the future. But my DNA could be theoretically used to lead law enforcement to cousins, children, siblings, or grandchildren.

The danger is not necessarily in the confirmatory use of DNA (i.e. let’s say that someone in my family went missing two generations ago, and remains have been found and law enforcement wants to use my DNA to confirm the relationship and likelihood of solving the case); the danger to our civil liberties comes when law enforcement has no idea who committed a crime, and decides to go on a “hunting expedition” through the databases. Ancestry, 23 and Me and the assorted databases are private databases, and access to them by government officials and law enforcement ought to be limited and used only when there is a specific warrant for specific information.

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