- In their 2019 transparency report, Ancestry.com revealed a Pennsylvania court approved a search warrant to access their database
- Ancestry did not comply with the search warrant and never received a follow up from law enforcement
- Last year a Florida judge approved a search warrant to access the database of GEDmatch to which the company applied
- Ancestry, 23andMe, and MyHeritage do not cooperate with law enforcement unless it is a valid warrant to protect their customers
Ancestry.com revealed in their 2019 transparency report a Pennsylvania court approved a search warrant seeking access to the company’s database which contains in the ballpark of 16 million DNA profiles. Keeping with Ancestry’s promise to protect its customer’s genetic profiles, the company did not comply.
Ancestry.com Does Not Voluntarily Cooperate With Law Enforcement
In 2019, Ancestry claimed to have received nine valid requests from law enforcement for user information. Information was provided in six of the nine cases. Eight out of nine of the requests were related to criminal investigations into credit card misuse, fraud, and identity theft. What caught the attention of many was the request from a Pennsylvania court to access the company’s DNA database.
The company told BuzzFeed News, “The warrant was improperly served on Ancestry and we did not provide any access or customer data in response. Ancestry has not received any follow up from law enforcement on this matter.”
The “Ancestry Guide for Law Enforcement” found on the company’s website clearly reads that “Ancestry does not voluntarily cooperate with law enforcement.” According to Ancestry, all government agencies seeking any access to the company’s customers’ data are required to “follow valid legal process.” Ancestry does not allow law enforcement to use its services to “investigate crimes or identify human remains.”
Ancestry will release basic customer information in compliance with 18 USC § 2703(c)(2) in response to a valid trial, grand jury or subpoena. The code gives government agencies the ability to request the disclosure of electronic communication services from a provider. A court order must be given after the agency provides “specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the contents of a wire or electronic communication, or the records or other information sought, are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.”
Ancestry is not the only company that vows to protect its customers’ genetic data. 23andMe told BuzzFeed News the company had received no warrants to search its database in 2019. The company went on to say, “We carefully scrutinize all law enforcement requests, and have never provided any customer information to a law enforcement agency, nor do we share customer data with any public databases or with entities that may increase law enforcement access.”
MyHeritage spokesperson Rafi Mendelsohn said, “Our position is that MyHeritage does not cooperate with law enforcement.” The Israeli-based company has over 3.75 million DNA profiles in its database. While the bigger companies have been able to stand their ground against law enforcement, at least one smaller company has not been so lucky.
The DNA site GEDmatch was subject to a search warrant in Florida last year that allowed law enforcement to search the company’s full database of nearly one million users. It is believed to be the first time a judge had approved such a search warrant. In July, Orlando Police Department Detective Michael Fields asked Judge Patricia Strowbridge in the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida to approve a warrant that gave him access to GEDmatch’s database. Strowbridge approved the search warrant and with 24 hours the site complied.
FamilyTreeDNA is more open to cooperating with law enforcement. According to the company’s law enforcement guide, FamilyTreeDNA’s DNA database of almost two million people can be accessed to “identify the remains of a deceased individual” or to “identify a perpetrator of homicide, sexual assault, or abduction.” Fields believe that having access to the database of Ancestry and 23andMe could lead to “hundreds and hundreds of unsolved crimes solved overnight.”