23andme and the Cold Case

August 15, 2013

By way of brief introduction, I last discussed the 23andme genetic screening service in the context of their belated adoption of IRB oversight and interloper paternity rates. You may also be interested in Ed Yong’s (or his euro-caucasoid doppelganger’s) results.

Today’s topic is brought to you by a comment from my closest collaborator on a fascinating low-N developmental biology project.

This collaborator raised a point that extends from my prior comment on the paternity post.

But, and here’s the rub, the information propagates. Let’s assume there is a mother who knows she had an affair that produced the kid or a father who impregnated someone unknown to his current family. Along comes the 23 and me contact to their child? Grandchild? Niece or nephew? Brother or sister? And some stranger asks them, gee, do you have a relative with these approximate racial characteristics, of approximately such and such age, who was in City or State circa 19blahdeblah? And then this person blast emails their family about it? or posts it on Facebook?

It also connects with a number of issues raised by the fact that 23andme markets to adoptees in search of their genetic relatives. This service is being used by genealogy buffs of all stripes and one can not help but observe that one of the more ethically complicated results will be the identification of unknown genetic relationships. As I alluded to above, interloper paternity may be identified. Also, one may find out that a relative gave a child up for adoption…or that one fathered a child in the past and was never informed.

That’s all very interesting but today’s topic relates to crimes in which DNA evidence has been left behind. At present, so far as I understand, the DNA matching is to people who have already crossed the law enforcement threshold. In fact there was a recent broughha over just what sort of “crossing” of the law enforcement threshold should permit the cops to take your DNA if I am not mistaken. This does not good, however, if the criminal has never come to the attention of law enforcement.

Ahhhh, but what if the cops could match the DNA sample left behind by the perpetrator to a much larger database. And find a first or second cousin or something? This would tremendously narrow the investigation, wouldn’t it?

It looks like 23andme is all set to roll over for whichever enterprising police department decides to try.

From the Terms of Service.

Further, you acknowledge and agree that 23andMe is free to preserve and disclose any and all Personal Information to law enforcement agencies or others if required to do so by law or in the good faith belief that such preservation or disclosure is reasonably necessary to: (a) comply with legal process (such as a judicial proceeding, court order, or government inquiry) or obligations that 23andMe may owe pursuant to ethical and other professional rules, laws, and regulations; (b) enforce the 23andMe TOS; (c) respond to claims that any content violates the rights of third parties; or (d) protect the rights, property, or personal safety of 23andMe, its employees, its users, its clients, and the public.

Looks to me that all the cops would need is a warrant. Easy peasy.

h/t to Ginny Hughes [Only Human blog] for cuing me to look over the 23andme ToS recently.

18 Responses to “23andme and the Cold Case”

  1. Ola Says:

    23%me is the glory hole of genetics. You might as well shove your dick thru’ a bathroom wall with cops and future employers and health insurers lined up on the other side. Why anyone with a functioning neuron would even consider partaking of such a thing, is quite beyond my comprehension.


  2. commentariette Says:

    No particular need to complain about 23andme. The LAPD already does attempt to identify based on “similar” matches in their DNA database (which is not wiped of dna records of people arrested and not charged or charged and found not guilty, btw). Widely reported in e.g. LATimes.


  3. miko Says:

    All types of information can be harmful or embarassing. What’s special about DNA?


  4. drugmonkey Says:


    yes but people are fighting the breadth of this type of thing with respect to anyone who is arrested for any purpose. The thing about 23andme is the extension to people who haven’t even been arrested for anything. a much, much broader net.


  5. ginger Says:

    I’m almost paranoid about this stuff, miko, but it didn’t even occur to me until I read this that 23&me’s ToS are much more like my ISP’s than like my doctor’s – but of course, you’re right, they’re an information service, so the expectation of confidentiality is lower than for health care. But, if I, an overeducated near-paranoid, can miss that point, the average consumer of the product is never going to have a chance to think that. DNA is special because outside of the forensic setting, it’s obtained routinely only during health care. The informational unit level of human DNA analyzed during most testing for health care isn’t inherently identifying (karyotyping, and allele testing are maybe the most common?), but of course the DNA sample extracted for testing is usually whole-genome, and that’s individually identifying.
    23&me sits in a very odd new place, in terms of safeguarding information and privacy expectations.


  6. DrugMonkey Says:

    “A very odd new place”

    Exactly. And why I find it so fascinating.


  7. Katherine Lontok Says:

    Read up on the Grim Sleeper case, which is now at trial if I’m not mistaken. CA and a few other states allow familial matching based on the current panel of 13 STR markers used by US law enforcement. PLoS One paper that came out yesterday (?) found low risk of netting an unrelated person, BUT much higher risk of mistakenly identifying a distant relative as a 1st degree relative. Honestly, if using more markers increases the accuracy of familial searches, I’m for it.

    Also, for 23&Me to get involved, there would have to be existing evidence pointing to the suspect, and enough of it for a warrant – currently, familial searching only requires that one of your relatives be a criminal. They don’t need any other evidence pointing to you and a warrant is not required.


  8. Katherine Lontok Says:

    Also, to your comment to commentariette: the Supreme Court just upheld MD’s law cataloging DNA profiles for arrestees in MD vs. King. See http://bit.ly/1bprthy


  9. The Other Dave Says:

    The cops consider DNA just another identifier that they can collect and keep in their records like photographs and fingerprints (those technologies were new once too).

    People who release their genetic information to 23&Me are no different than people who tweet their whereabouts & activities every 10 minutes or post pictures of every stupid thing they do on Facebook. They opt to make the info public. Why shouldn’t the police use it?

    I personally think 23&Me has missed a marketing opportunity by not offering to screen for CCR5 mutations conferring HIV immunity. I think a lot of people would pay a lot for peace of mind or self-permission for some wild times.

    Oh, wait. I see they already sell that opportunity…

    Whoohoo! Who’s up for a PARTY!?


  10. DrugMonkey Says:

    Imagine if they screened those spit samples for illicit drugs, metabolites? What a study that would make! Hmmmm, where are my IRB forms….


  11. @ola
    Yes, the police access to genetic data is worrisome (but not really any more so than what we are learning is also true of e-mail and phone conversations — basically the idea that warrants are needed for anything seems to be going away in the US, unfortunately), but the issue of genetic data affecting insurance and employment status has already been dealt with — the ” Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act” of 2008 already makes discrimination by health insurers and employment on the basis of genetic information illegal.


  12. The Other Dave Says:

    “” Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act” of 2008 already makes discrimination by health insurers and employment on the basis of genetic information illegal.”

    ha ha. So they can no longer ask whether there is any heart disease or cancer in your family?


  13. sciencedude Says:

    I submitted a sample to 23&Me and was amazed at how much genetic information I could get for just $99. It was extremely interesting and I also learned about the presence of a couple of concerning alleles. Not happy that I have them, but I would rather know then not know. I am not quite sure what the concern is here. I suppose I might be concerned if I decided to turn to a life of crime and were careless about leaving my DNA behind. If the police find that I am related to someone they are after, I may or may not want to help them with there investigation. If I did not know the person, I probably could not help anyway. If I did, I may or may not want to help. But this seems like worrying about being struck by lightning.


  14. @The Other Dave
    Yeah, phenotypes are just as valid as ever, just not genotypes — which was the added concern of genomic data.


  15. DrugMonkey Says:

    Perhaps I know of certain lightning strikes? If you read around on their forums you can find plenty of examples…. #fuckthesesixfishinparticular


  16. ginger Says:

    The Other Dave: the thing is that most people wouldn’t consider giving a sample to 23andme to be putting that information into the public domain, because the ToS says it’s not and most people assume their genetic info would be covered by HIPAA. But since it’s not actually health care, the obligation isn’t there. If you’re participating in their research, there’s a Certificate of Confidentiality, which might actually protect you from legal intrusion more than someone who didn’t consent to research because they wanted to retain more privacy.


  17. Jonathan Says:

    As Katherine points out, familial searching already happens, but only under restricted circumstances.


  18. Rich Says:

    If you’ve got secrets, then perhaps you shouldn’t submit your DNA for genetic testing. However, this still doesn’t assure you that a cousin or other relative won’t as was the case with the grim sleeper. As a law abiding citizen I’m OK with them using large DNA databases to catch rapists and murders.


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