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A Consumer DNA Testing Company’s Alarming New Marketing Pivot

Author(s): 
Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
March 29, 2019

Sometimes a marketing pivot serves a truth-telling function. A new television ad for the consumer DNA database FamilyTreeDNA asks the public to share their DNA with the company not to find out whether they’re at high risk for breast cancer, whether their ancestors were black, or what their Spotify playlist should include. Instead, the father of Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted in 2002, observes that “when a loved one is a victim of a violent crime, families want answers. … If you are one of the millions of people who have taken a DNA test, your help can provide the missing link.”

FamilyTreeDNA makes explicit the use of consumer DNA testing that law enforcement agencies have increasingly relied on to solve cases. When police identified Joseph DeAngelo in 2018 as the suspected Golden State Killer responsible for a series of rapes and murders in California several decades ago, they did so with the aid of genetic genealogy: the combination of genetic matching and traditional genealogical methods. Police uploaded crime scene DNA to GEDmatch, a free service where people submit genetic information (typically from consumer testing services like 23andMe) to find relatives and ancestors. A genetic genealogist combined the identification of those genetically related to the then-unknown suspect with genealogical aids like birth records and newspaper clippings. DNA taken from his trash and car door confirmed the match between DeAngelo and the crime scene evidence.

The two largest DNA testing companies take the position that they will provide customer data only with a lawful order like a subpoena or a warrant. Indeed, 23andMe is explicit in its position of using “all practical and legal administrative resources to resist such requests.” FamilyTreeDNA distinguishes itself by not just allowing law enforcement access to its consumer data but embracing the tactic. It asks consumers to contribute genetic information for the express purpose of helping the police solve crimes.  (If you’ve taken a DNA test elsewhere with a competing company, you can upload your file for free to FamilyTreeDNA.) This marketing shift follows its earlier acknowledgment that the company had already been working with the FBI.  As a result, the company is effectively crowdsourcing criminal investigations.

Read the full piece at Slate