JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Millions of people have handed their DNA over to genetic testing companies like Ancestry or 23andMe to learn more about their family trees.
But when you ship off your saliva, law enforcement could have access to your DNA.
Police could use genetic information it gets from those companies to identify you in a criminal investigation, even if you’ve never used one of those services.
Jacksonville resident Eric Yarham wanted to learn more about his family tree, so he mailed off his saliva to 23andMe.
“Just trying to unravel the mystery that is your genetics,” said Yarham, who lives in the Riverside area. “That lingering 0.3 percent is sub-Saharan African. So that’s swimming around in my DNA."
Yarham had no idea police could request his genetic information.
Both 23andMe and Ancestry confirm your genetic information could be disclosed to law enforcement if they have a warrant.
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WSB-TV's Cox Media Group sister station Action News Jax asked 23andMe privacy officer Kate Black whether the company notifies customers about that possibility before they mail in their DNA.
“We try to make information available on the website in various forms, so through Frequently Asked Questions, through information in our privacy center,” Black said.
According to the company’s self-reported data, law enforcement has requested information for five American 23andMe customers.
So far, the company reports it has not turned over any information.
But 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 self-reports that it complied with a 2014 search warrant to identify a customer based on a DNA sample.
Spokespeople at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the State Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office and the Florida Department Of Law Enforcement told Action News Jax they don’t recall any local investigations in which genetic testing information was requested from a private company.
The departments said they don’t know for sure.
“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.
But it doesn't even have to be your DNA; if a family member who shipped off their saliva to one of these companies, law enforcement can request their genetic information 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 Jacksonville Dr. Saman Soleymani, who has studied genetics extensively and been an expert witness in local criminal cases.
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.
Cox Media Group