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.

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

intrepid reporter @eperlste filed a dispatch from the front lines of the OpenScience, CrowdFund War.

I’ve reached out to several @qb3 incubator biotech startups to learn more about leasing lab space. $900/bench/month is a pretty penny!

$10,800 per year just for the bench space alone. One bench. He didn’t elaborate so it is hard to know what is included, but I think we can safely assume that normal costs go up from there. Freezer space, hourly use of shared big-ticket equipment, etc. Vivarium fees to maintain mouse lines won’t come cheaply. Waste disposal.

Just another data point for you in your efforts to assess what can reasonably be accomplished for a given threshold of crowd-fund science support money and in determining where your Indirect Cost dollars for a traditional grant go.