Millions of people have handed their DNA over to genetic testing companies like Ancestry or 23andMe to learn more about their family history.
Eric Yarham wanted to learn about his heritage, so he mailed off his saliva to 23andMe.
“I’m just trying to unravel the mystery that is your genetics,” said Yarham.
Yarham was surprised to find a tiny portion of his DNA profile can be traced back to sub-Saharan Africa. He was also unaware that his genetic information could end up in the hands of police.
“The police make mistakes and I would rather not be on the unfortunate end of one of those mistakes, as a result of my DNA being somewhere that is unlucky,” Yarham said.
Both 23andMe and Ancestry confirm your DNA profile could be disclosed to law enforcement if they have a warrant.
23andMe Privacy Officer Kate Black said, “We try to make information available on the website in various forms, so through Frequently Asked Questions, through information in our privacy center.”
According to the company’s self-reported data, law enforcement has requested information for five American 23andMe customers since it began offering home test kits more than a decade ago.
23andMe’s website states, “In each of these cases, 23andMe successfully resisted the request and protected our customers’ data from release to law enforcement.”
Black said she wouldn’t entirely rule it out in the future. “We would always review a request and take it on a case-by-case basis,” Black said.
Ancestry.com self-reports that it complied with a 2014 search warrant to identify a customer based on a DNA sample. Ancestry claims to have more than four million customers.
Boston 25 checked with District Attorneys’ in Suffolk, Middlesex, Essex, and Norfolk Counties. None were aware of any Massachusetts cases where results from a private genealogy testing service has been requested or used in a criminal investigation.
Jacksonville Dr. Saman Soleymani, who has studied genetics extensively and been an expert witness in criminal cases said genetic information submitted by a family member can also be of interest to law enforcement for familial matching.
“They can see what the likelihood is of these certain alleles, of these genetic markers, matching up to make it -- likelihood of whether you were involved in, let’s say, that criminal activity or not,” said Dr. Soleymani. Soleymani said he didn't take any chances when he sent his DNA to 23andMe. “I literally sent my kit saying my name is Billy Bob,” he added.
If you or a family member has sent in your genetic material to Ancestry or 23andMe, both companies allow you to delete your DNA results.