At the dawn of the 21st century, technological breakthroughs made mapping a person’s DNA profile as easy as spitting into a tube, and Houston-based FamilyTreeDNA was at the forefront of marketing DNA kits to for genealogical research.
Founded by entrepreneur and genealogy enthusiast Bennett Greenspan, the company allows people to upload DNA information from third-party sources, such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe, and look for matches in FamilyTreeDNA’s database of more than 2 million profiles, which the company claims is “the most comprehensive DNA matching database in the industry.”
“We are not running tests like the FBI, which is interested in trying to determine a match to a single person,” Greenspan said in a 2005 interview with the Houston Chronicle.
Ironically, the FBI would soon become interested in exactly the services FamilyTreeDNA offered.
DNA analysis has been part of forensic investigations as far back as 1986, when police in the United Kingdom used it to identify and convict Colin Pitchfork, who raped and murdered two teenage girls in Leicestershire, England.
While DNA found at crime scenes could initially only be used to identify the actual perpetrator or victim, by the early 2000s, technology had advanced to the point that samples could be matched to the so-called “familial DNA” of a relative.
In recent years, familial DNA has been used in several high-profile cases, most notably that of Joseph DeAngelo — suspected of being the “Golden State Killer.” DeAngelo was investigated after DNA left at a crime scene was matched to a mutual descendant of his great-great-great grandparents, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The relative had uploaded their DNA information to the open data personal genomics database and genealogy website GEDmatch. After clandestinely obtaining a sample of DeAngleo’s DNA and finding a direct match, he was arrested and charged with 13 counts of murder, including murder committed during the course of a burglary and rape, and 13 counts of kidnapping for robbery, according to CNN.
In 2018, FamilyTreeDNA noticed an unknown file type being loaded into their database, according to Forensic Magazine. They contacted the user and subsequently received a phone call from the FBI, who revealed they had been accessing and using the company’s web service for an undisclosed amount of time.
FamilyTreeDNA was immediately concerned about the privacy of their users. At the same time, they knew that if law enforcement were to subpoena their data, there was little they could do to stop it. A compromise was stuck.
As Greenspan told Forensic Magazine, “I could either pretend it didn’t exist — or I could try like heck to manage it.”
“If we can help prevent violent crimes and save lives or bring closure to families, then we’re going to do that,” Greenspan said. “We’re going to do it within a framework that continues to ensure that the privacy of our customers.”
Law enforcement is only allowed to use the service “to identify the remains of a deceased individual” and “to identify a perpetrator of homicide, sexual assault, or abduction,” according to the FamilyTreeDNA Law Enforcement Guide.
While law enforcement can register and upload profiles into the company’s DNA database and access its information, they must submit a subpoena or a search warrant in order to obtain additional information. Additionally, users can opt out of the matching feature, meaning their personal DNA profile will not show up in any queries.
Since FamilyTreeDNA formalized its policy, numerous law enforcement agencies have submitted profiles to the database, according to The Wall Street Journal. DNA matches have helped identify several victims and criminals in cases stretching back to the 1970s.
In April 2019, two unknown victims found more than 25 years ago in Texas’ “Killing Fields” were identified after cold case detectives uploaded their DNA info to the site, according to FOX News. Most recently, the late convicted rapist Donald Perea was linked to the 1981 rape and murder of 18-year-old Jeannie Moore, according to CBS4 in Denver.
Although FamilyTreeDNA has faced backlash from some customers over their new policies, it continues to offer its services to law enforcement and tries to maintain its users’ privacy. Earlier this year, the company released an ad featuring Ed Smart, father of Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted at 14, extolling the company’s efforts to identify both the victims and perpetrators of violent crimes.
For more cold case investigations, follow Paul Holes as he explores the physical and emotional "DNA" of crime scenes in "The DNA of Murder with Paul Holes," premiering Saturday, Oct. 12 at 7/6c on Oxygen.
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