Ancestry has revealed it is fighting the U.S. government over an order to hand over DNA data. This is only the second-known case in which the leading family history company has been served with a warrant demanding genetic information on its users.
In a transparency report released last week, the genealogy website revealed that because of “jurisdictional” issues, it decided not to comply with the single request for DNA data it received in 2019. It shows how, whilst a privacy hot potato, genetic data from such companies isn’t as crucial to law enforcement as many had predicted it would become. Not yet, anyway.
Previously, Ancestry.com rivals have been told to hand over data to law enforcement.
GEDmatch was raided for data on a number of occasions, according to various media reports. In one case, the company handed over information that helped the police track down the so-called Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, in 2018. Late last year, the New York Timesreported on a claim from a Florida-based police officer that they’d also managed to acquire a warrant to search GEDmatch’s database.
Outside of DNA data, Ancestry said it received nine valid law enforcement requests for user information, providing customer details in six. Just one related to DNA, the other eight regarded credit card misuse, fraud and identity theft.
“Ancestry received one request seeking access to Ancestry’s DNA database through a search warrant. Ancestry challenged the warrant on jurisdictional grounds and did not provide any customer data in response,” the company wrote.
“Ancestry also refused numerous inquiries on the basis that the requestor failed to obtain the appropriate legal process.”
Genetic data can link you to all manner of people, including criminals, hence why there’s such concern over keeping it private. But when people share their DNA data with the likes of Ancestry and 23andme, they may not be aware that governments can legally demand it be handed over to police investigators.
But government requests for Ancestry data appear to be decreasing, with 10 coming in 2018, none of them for genetic information. That was down from 34 in 2017 when, again, no genetic data was demanded.
Prior to the order in 2019, Ancestry has complied with just one request for DNA information, in 2014, when a search warrant ordered the company to identity a person based on a DNA sample that had previously been made public.