Genealogy websites can share personal information with law enforcement

Investigators said they captured Golden State Killer suspect Joseph James DeAngelo using a little known public genealogy website by uploading his DNA profile and getting a hit that matched a distant relative, however, the website said it didn’t know the public database was being used to try to catch a serial killer.

Searching these genetic websites previously backfired for investigators in the Golden State Killer case when they misidentified an elderly Oregon man as a possible suspect, public records show. It led to a judge ordering the man provide a DNA sample, however, he was later cleared as a suspect.

The genealogy websites often spell out in their terms of use that personal information could be shared with law enforcement, which could make you a police informant.

Two of the largest DNA testing companies, 23 and Me and Ancestry both told KTVU they don’t release information to law enforcement without a court order. 

Ancestry publishes an annual transparency report and in 2017, it received 34 valid requests from law enforcement and handed over data 31 times. However, Ancestry said the data was not genetic information of any members.

There are also dozens of third-party sites where DNA information can be uploaded, stored and compared to other people’s results. One of those sites, GEDmatch confirms that it is the service used by investigators to upload raw genetic information from the Golden State Killer case to identify a short list of suspects.

GEDmatch site operator Curtis Rogers issued a statement saying in part:

“Although we were not approached by law enforcement or anyone else about this case or about the DNA, it has always been GEDmatch’s policy to inform users that the database could be used for other users. It is important that GEDmatch participants understand the possible uses of their DNA, including identification of relatives who have committed crimes or were victims of crimes.”

It is possible to ask for DNA information be deleted by emailing the company, however, not every DNA site will delete a sample. 23 and Me and Ancestry both said the companies will only destroy genetic information after completing research studies a user has agreed to participate in and cannot help if the information has already been shared with a third party site or another user.

For additional information on getting information deleted, click one of the links below:
Ancestry DNA
23 and Me
GED Match