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Taking a DNA ancestry test may put you on the FBI’s radar

DNA and genealogy tests have become an absolute cultural phenomenon in the past few years. They’ve provided the news with shocking celebrity heritages. They’ve given average people the thrill of finding out they’re part Neanderthal or a slim percentage of Cherokee Indian. Ryan even mentioned to me that Ancestry.com helped their family bring up stories that their grandpa had forgotten and was able to relive.

But the tens of millions that took these DNA tests, may have voluntarily placed their family’s DNA in a database to track down criminals.

Family Tree DNA, one of the largest genetic sequencing companies in the space, announced that they’re allowing the FBI’s Investigative Genealogy Unit to access their expansive archive of genealogical data to track down criminals.

For detectives across the country desperate for leads, investigative genealogy has become the newest frontier for law enforcement agencies. By uploading DNA collected from a crime scene to genealogy databases, detectives have been able to locate distant relatives of suspected serial killers and rapists. Then, assembling a genealogical tree from that information, they have worked to identify suspects of crimes.

Salvador Hernandez, BuzzFeed News

This is a very exciting time for law enforcement. There are agencies that expend massive resources tracking down criminals that are somehow flying under the radar. This is going to change the game for authorities tracking down criminals. In fact, it’s already proven extremely useful:

…the practice gained international attention in April 2018 when detectives used the technique, scanning a public database, to find a distant relative that led to the eventual arrest of the suspected Golden State Killer, who killed 13 people and raped dozens of others.

Salvador Hernandez, BuzzFeed News

A lot of their customers feel duped right now. And I completely understand. Fortunately, officials at Family Tree DNA said customers can opt out of familial matching, which would remove them from FBI searches. However, it’ll also prevent customers from finding possible relatives through DNA testing. So, there’s an unfortunate tradeoff.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, every companies future rests on the proprietary data sets they own. Family Tree DNA happens to have an extremely valuable and proprietary data set (over 1 million genetic sequences). And it’s bringing them tremendous value.

In the short term, this is going to make our country a safer place. However, when we extend this collaboration between genealogy and law enforcement out ten or fifteen years, there are some chances this gets quite dystopic.

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Predicting Future Criminals

Let’s say the FBI in collaboration with a genetic lab collects enough genetic data on criminals, analyzes that data to find patterns, and ultimately finds the genes that with 99.9% accuracy will determine if someone is going to be a criminal or not.

Would they search the existing tens of millions of genetic sequences out there to find who is going to commit crimes in their life and arrest them or put them on watch? If they could they use this information to catch the next rapist or mass murderer before they strike that would be great for society, right?

This is not entirely theoretical, either. About four years ago, researchers in Finland came to a chilling conclusion about the link between genealogy and criminal behavior:

A genetic analysis of almost 900 offenders in Finland has revealed two genes associated with violent crime. Those with the genes were 13 times more likely to have a history of repeated violent behaviour. The authors of the study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, said at least 5-10% of all violent crime in Finland could be attributed to individuals with these genotypes. But they stressed the genes could not be used to screen criminals.

Melissa Hogenboom, BBC

I think people would be split on whether or not people with violent predisposition (by DNA) are seperated from the rest of us or are monitored more closely than others. Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, this might not even be possible:

JAMA Psychiatry suggests that so many genes contribute to the anti-social behavior behind criminality that using such information may never be practical, and might even do more harm than good.

Ricki Lewis, Genetic Literacy Project

If we reel it back to the present time, this news should really put you on alert for how valuable your personal data is. Most truly understand that just being alive, having an identity, and making decisions tells a valuable story about the human condition – a story that companies can use to predict future behaviors, create the next technology, and profit substantially.

I think we’ll all look back in a dozen or two dozen years and realize how foolish we were for blindly complying. However, it’s hard not to.

If the concept of “What is your data worth” interests you, please join me for lunch (digitally) on March 1st when Ryan and I will be presenting a keynote on this topic.

Head over to this link to reserve your seat

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