Do Police Have Access To Your DNA?

DNA by qimono on Pixabay

Palm Beach Daily News (via MSN) posted an article titled: “Do police have access to your DNA? What to know about investigative genetic genealogy” The article starts with: You joined a genealogy site to connect with relatives but then had them arrested for murder instead.

Such is reality for a growing number of people thanks to the rest of investigative genetic genealogy, which led to the arrest of the so-called Golden State Killer in 2018 and countless others since.

Police have used criminal genetic databases for decades, but sites like and 23andMe revolutionized the industry by allowing anyone to make their genetic material public. Law enforcement can access genealogists’ online DNA profiles under certain circumstance, paving the way for breaks in decades-old crime – and renewed concerns over privacy.

Considering taking a DNA test? Here are five things to know before you do.

Some genealogy sites are more private than others.

Police can’t access the databases of direct-to-consumer DNA testing giants AncestryDNA and 23andMe without getting a court order from a judge first. Most turn to GEDmatch or FamilyTreeDNA – the two genealogy sites that don’t require a warrant to access the data.

NOTE: FamilyTreeDNA is NOT connected to They are separate sites.

Both began as free, user-sourced tools for ancestry buffs years before the emergence of investigative genetic genealogy. People who had their DNA analyzed by private companies could make their genetic profiles public by uploading them to FamilyTreeDNA or GEDmatch, broadening their search for relatives.

Each site amassed more than 1 million users’ DNA profiles this way by the time detectives began combing it for relatives of unidentified perpetrators.

Their privacy policies have shifted in the years since. Currently, police can see only the names of relatives who have opted in to being seen – or in the case of FamilyTreeDNA, those who have not opted out. Thierry Bernard, the CEO of GEDmatch’s parent company Qiagen, said in January that about 70% of the GEDmatch database’s 1.8 million profiles are viewable to police.

Most white Americans can be identified through the DNA of someone else already

Unless someone’s immediate family is obsessed with its ancestry, it’s unlikely police would find many of their first or second cousins in the GEDmatch database – but they could get hundreds of third cousins. That’s enough to start building out a family tree.

A study published in the journal Science found in 2018 that 60% of Americans of European descent could be found through the DNA of a third cousin. GEDmatch encompassed about 0.5% of the U.S. adult population at the time of the study – once the figure rises to 2%, lead researcher Yaniv Erlich said more than 90% of people of European descent can be found in this way.

“People can be identified in ways now that we never would have imagined even a couple of years ago,”said Amy McGuire, a Palm Beach Gardens native and biomedical ethics professor at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. “If somebody really, really, wants to try to identify you, I think they can. Or they will be able to eventually.”

Never had your genes tested? The DNA you leave behind is fair game for police.

Humans shed about 30,000 skin cells an hour – as much as 100 points worth of genetic material over a lifetime.

With the right analysis, the DNA contained in each cell can reveal deeply sensitive information about a person: what they look like, who their parents are, what their lineage is, what health conditions they may be predisposed to.

“You’re leaving it behind everywhere you go,” said Tiffany Roy, a forensic analyst from West Palm Beach.”Things you touch, things you drink from – and you’re not even thinking about it.”

It’s not an intentional discard, she said, but a biological one, and it comes into play at the tail end of an investigation. Once detectives have homed in on a person of interest, they’ll collect a DNA sample through something discarded, like a soda can, and confirm whether it matches the crime-scene sample. Detectives don’t need a warrant to do this. 

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