Although the recent, explosive success of personal genomics has been very exciting, it’s also been a point of concern. Major DNA testing companies like Ancestry and 23andMe have won millions of customers with promises of revealing the secrets of their family history and genetics. But the creation of vast DNA databases has prompted fears that our genetic information might be used in ways we did not intend. With DNA testing firm FamilyTreeDNA now partnering with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, those fears now seem confirmed.
On Jan. 31, it was reported that FamilyTree has been allowing the FBI to use its database to uncover possible leads in unsolved violent crimes cases. As part of the agreement, the FBI can upload DNA collected at crime scenes to search for matches of perpetrators or their relatives. Previously, individuals who uploaded DNA to FamilyTree’s database gained the ability to search for possible genetic matches.
Genetic Data is the New Frontier of Crime Solving
Although it is a relatively new field, genetic genealogy has proven to be an incredibly powerful tool in solving cold cases.
In recent months, the process of using genetic information in a criminal investigation has helped break a 12-year-old homicide, a decade old rape and murder case and a 31-year-old child slaying. The technique was also employed to finally bring the infamous Golden State Killer, who became active in 1974, to justice in 2018. As a result, the FBI has even established an Investigative Genealogy Unit.
In the past, law-enforcement agencies have been limited to searching for the leads in open access databases. The FamilyTree/FBI partnership represents the first time a private database has been made accessible without a court order. The DNA testing company has stated that the FBI will have the same amount of access as its standard users.
FamilyTree representatives have noted that the records of customers who used their service, but chose to opt out on the family matching option, will not be available to the FBI.
However, as the company only changed its terms of service to include language about sharing its records with law enforcement in December 2018, many users may not know that their private information is not as private as it used to be.
FamilyTree has more than 1 million DNA records in its database.
Genetic Data is also the New Frontier of Pharmacology
Although not as direct as what FamilyTree is doing, 23andMe has also been using its DNA data for reasons other than personal edification. Last July, pharmaceutical titan GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced plans to invest $300 million in the popular DNA testing company in hopes of uncovering product development insights.
Specifically, GSK hopes to utilize the anonymized genetic information of 23andMe’s 5 million users to fabricate new drugs that will optimize the human immune system.
As the immunotherapy drugs market is expected to be worth more than $200 billion by 2022, GSK’s investment makes a lot of sense. It’s estimated that 80 percent of 23andMe’s users chose not to opt out of having their genetic information shared with a third party.
Ostensibly, using DNA data to solve murders and develop life-saving drugs is a good thing. But, it’s worth considering whether or not those gains are worth making the notion of privacy anachronistic.