Is GEDmatch safe? Conflict over genetic privacy in the US

Few days ago, law enforcement agencies in Florida gained warrant to access GEDmatch – genetic database of 1.2 million people. That came just after a five-month attempt (pictured above) to protect privacy of GEDmatch Inc. customers by handing over data to the police forces only when genotyped/sequenced individual issued an informed, additional consent.

Law professor, Erin Murphy, was astonished:

The company made a decision to keep law enforcement out, and that’s been overridden by a court. It’s a signal that no genetic information can be safe. I have no question in my mind that if the public isn’t outraged by this, they will go to the mother lode: the 15-million-person Ancestry database.

Erin Murphy for New York Times

Detective Michael Fields, who applied for a warrant and received it, said that he would welcome access to Ancestry database (15 million people) and 23andMe database (10 million people).

Is GEDmatch safe to use?

Leader of DNA testing market, 23andMe, issued a statement in which they accused GEDmatch of failing to protect genetic privacy, essentially stating that GEDmatch is unsafe. After court’s decision, GEDmatch opened the access in 24 hours and reportedly did not challenge the warrant. That ruling could be extrapolated as a precedent in eventual cases involving other databases. 23andMe promised resistance to possible requests from law enforcement agencies:

In contrast, if we had received a warrant, we would use every legal remedy possible.

It’s worth noting that the warrant already affected part of 23andMe customers – those who uploaded their data to GEDmatch on their own.

Dangers of DNA testing

The ruling was more of an ad hoc case – GEDmatch was already used by the US agencies and its new, more strict policy was simply reverted in few months to allow the usage again. In the context of privacy and safety, it clearly renders GEDmatch as unsafe to anyone who may be of interest to law enforcement agencies.

The difference between GEDmatch and Ancestry/23andMe leaves possibility that the warrant is only an exception. In the end, more warrants will probably spark negative reaction of the public, scare off customers from GEDmatch/other, and in a consequence limit capabilities of the law enforcement.

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