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Your Daughter Arrested By Your Own DNA? Ancestry Sites & Law Enforcement

Back in 2009, I’d written an article on Disney theme parks sharing facial recognition technologically enhanced photos of park-goers with the Department of Homeland Security in an effort to boost the DHS’ base population photo database.  Shortly thereafter, the theme parks were joined by cruise lines, vacation spots and just about all hotel, domestic and international, check-ins.  Now firmly in possession of billions of citizen and visitor photos, law enforcement has moved on to absorb as much DNA from the public as it can, often to identify relatives of those on file in connection with crimes.

This 2015 Fusion article describes the acquisition of genetic IDs from family ancestry sites like Ancestry.com and 23andMe:

When companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe first invited people to send in their DNA for genealogy tracing and medical diagnostic tests, privacy advocates warned about the creation of giant genetic databases that might one day be used against participants by law enforcement. DNA, after all, can be a key to solving crimes. It “has serious information about you and your family,” genetic privacy advocate Jeremy Gruber told me back in 2010 when such services were just getting popular.

Now, five years later, when 23andMe and Ancestry both have over a million  customers, those warnings are looking prescient. “Your relative’s DNA could turn you into a suspect,” warns Wired, writing about a case from earlier this year, in which New Orleans filmmaker Michael Usry became a suspect in an unsolved murder case after cops did a familial genetic search using semen collected in 1996. The cops searched an Ancestry.com database and got a familial match to a saliva sample Usry’s father had given years earlier. Usry was ultimately determined to be innocent and the Electronic Frontier Foundation called it a “wild goose chase” that demonstrated “the very real threats to privacy and civil liberties posed by law enforcement access to private genetic databases.”

The FBI maintains a national genetic database with samples from convicts and arrestees, but this was the most public example of cops turning to private genetic databases to find a suspect. But it’s not the only time it’s happened, and it means that people who submitted genetic samples for reasons of health, curiosity, or to advance science could now end up in a genetic line-up of criminal suspects.

Both Ancestry.com and 23andMe stipulate in their privacy policies that they will turn information over to law enforcement if served with a court order. 23andMe says it’s received a couple of requests from both state law enforcement and the FBI, but that it has “successfully resisted them.”

23andMe’s first privacy officer Kate Black, who joined the company in February, says 23andMe plans to launch a transparency report, like those published by Google, Facebook and Twitter, within the next month or so. The report, she says, will reveal how many government requests for information the company has received, and presumably, how many it complies with. (Update: The company released the report a week later.)

“In the event we are required by law to make a disclosure, we will notify the affected customer through the contact information provided to us, unless doing so would violate the law or a court order,” said Black by email.

Ancestry.com would not say specifically how many requests it’s gotten from law enforcement. It wanted to clarify that in the Usry case, the particular database searched was a publicly available one that Ancestry has since taken offline with a message about the site being “used for purposes other than that which it was intended.” Police came to Ancestry.com with a warrant to get the name that matched the DNA.

“On occasion when required by law to do so, and in this instance we were, we have cooperated with law enforcement and the courts to provide only the specific information requested but we don’t comment on the specifics of cases,” said a spokesperson.

As NYU law professor Erin Murphy told the New Orleans Advocate regarding the Usry case, gathering DNA information is “a series of totally reasonable steps by law enforcement.” If you’re a cop trying to solve a crime, and you have DNA at your disposal, you’re going to want to use it to further your investigation. But the fact that your signing up for 23andMe or Ancestry.com means that you and all of your current and future family members could become genetic criminal suspects is not something most users probably have in mind when trying to find out where their ancestors came from.

“It has this really Orwellian state feeling to it,” Murphy said to the Advocate.

If the idea of investigators poking through your DNA freaks you out, both Ancestry.com and 23andMe have options to delete your information with the sites. 23andMe says it will delete information within 30 days upon request.

Another example of familial DNA invasion:

From pri,org:

DNA is taken from the crime scene and compared against a federally regulated FBI-run database used to process DNA evidence, called CODIS. The process can take as long as 18 months before a match is identified. In the meantime, the perpetrator has committed a string of other crimes.

But some local police departments claim they can get faster results — as little as 30 days — by using private labs and local DNA databases.

Frederick Harran, director of public safety at the Bensalem Police Department in Pennsylvania said, “18 months is not prevention, that’s not what they pay me for.”

“I would agree the federal database is a good thing, but we’re just moving too slow,” he claims.

So more and more law enforcement agencies are turning to local databases. But with loose regulations, that can present troubling scenarios. Take this real example from Melbourne, Florida, for example.

A few teenagers were sitting in a parked car, when a police officer pulled up and requested someone provide a DNA sample. The officer gave one boy a cotton swab and a consent form. Once the officer made the collection, he went back on patrol as usual.

Increasingly, local police departments are collecting consensual DNA samples, processed using private labs. It’s happening in cities across Florida, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and North Carolina.

The potential issues for these databases vary state by state. In Florida, minors are allowed to consent to having their DNA collected, which isn’t true in other states, like Pennsylvania. But simply maintaining the databases allows each jurisdiction to test every sample already collected, meaning that the DNA from a minor crime scene from years before could be immediately matched with the new sample.

Stephen Mercer, chief attorney for the Forensics Division of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, finds the practice deeply troubling.

“The collection procedureshighlights the very real threat to liberty interests that local DNA databanks pose,” Mercer said. “The usual suspects are targeted, so we see this amplification of bias in the criminal justice system along the lines of race being amplified through the criminal justice system.”

Granted, many may think, “Well, if you have nothing to hide…”.  That’s not the point. The innocent, unindicted individual should retain a basic form of control over whether she becomes involved in situations wherein she identifies relatives in potential criminal acts. There is something perverse in having one’s DNA finger one’s own flesh and blood for the government’s purposes.  Identification by familial DNA isn’t a slippery slope… it’s a well-greased slalom of privacy infringement.

We will be looking into the matter of DNA familial finger-pointing in-depth and report back as developments warrant .

BNI Operatives: Situationally aware.

As always, stay safe.

Blood is Thicker Than Ink: Familial DNA In The Evidence And Court Rooms.

familial-dna

This article in Wired got me hooked on all things “familial DNA”.  Here’s an intriguing excerpt and lead-in explanation to the concept:

From WIRED:

THE THREE MEN who showed up at Michael Usry’s door last December were unfailingly polite. They told him they were cops investigating a hit-and-run that had occurred a few blocks away, near New Orleans City Park, and they invited Usry to accompany them to a police station so he could answer some questions. Certain that he hadn’t committed any crime, the 36-year-old filmmaker agreed to make the trip.

The situation got weird in the car. As they drove, the cops prodded Usry for details of a 1998 trip he’d taken to Rexburg, Idaho, where two of his sisters later attended college—a detail they’d gleaned by studying his Facebook page. “They were like, ‘We know high school kids do some crazy things—were you drinking? Did you meet anybody?’” Usry recalls. The grilling continued downtown until one of the three men—an FBI agent—told Usry he wanted to swab the inside of Usry’s cheek but wouldn’t explain his reason for doing so, though he emphasized that their warrant meant Usry could not refuse.

The bewildered Usry soon learned that he was a suspect in the 1996 murder of an Idaho Falls teenager named Angie Dodge. Though a man had been convicted of that crime after giving an iffy confession, his DNA didn’t match what was found at the crime scene. Detectives had focused on Usry after running a familial DNA search, a technique that allows investigators to identify suspects who don’t have DNA in a law enforcement database but whose close relatives have had their genetic profiles cataloged. In Usry’s case the crime scene DNA bore numerous similarities to that of Usry’s father, who years earlier had donated a DNA sample to a genealogy project through his Mormon church in Mississippi. That project’s database was later purchased by Ancestry, which made it publicly searchable—a decision that didn’t take into account the possibility that cops might someday use it to hunt for genetic leads.

Usry, whose story was first reported in The New Orleans Advocate, was finally cleared after a nerve-racking 33-day wait—the DNA extracted from his cheek cells didn’t match that of Dodge’s killer, whom detectives still seek. But the fact that he fell under suspicion in the first place is the latest sign that it’s time to set ground rules for familial DNA searching, before misuse of the imperfect technology starts ruining lives.

Mitch Morrissey, Denver’s district attorney and one of the nation’s leading advocates for familial DNA searching, stresses that the technology is “an innovative approach to investigating challenging cases, particularly cold cases where the victims are women or children and traditional investigative tactics fail to yield a solid suspect.” Familial DNA searches have indeed helped nab people who might otherwise have evaded justice. In the most celebrated example, Los Angeles police arrested a man believed to be the Grim Sleeper serial killer after discovering that the crime scene DNA shared a significant number of genetic markers with that of a convicted felon—who turned out to be the man’s son.

Pitching forward to today when over the weekend, I caught this bit of news on the radio:

Bill Medley’s (of the Righteous Brothers) ex-wife’ s murderer was captured – 44 years later and via the use of familiar DNA – a suspect identified through examination of his family member’s DNA.

From the Washington Post:

Nearly 41 years to the day after the brutal death of Karen Klaas, her 1976 murder has been solved, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

The case captivated the public four decades ago because of its shocking circumstances and a celebrity connection: Klaas had been attacked at her home in Hermosa Beach, a small oceanfront California city that even now sees only a handful of murders per decade.

Klaas also was the ex-wife of Righteous Brothers singer Bill Medley, whose voice had become ubiquitous in the 1960s with hits like “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” and “Unchained Melody.”

On Jan. 30, 1976, police found the 32-year-old Klaas unconscious at home. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled with her pantyhose, police said.

Klaas was taken to a hospital, where she remained comatose for five days. She died Feb. 4, 1976.

 

Her murder would remain Hermosa Beach’s longest-running cold case, detectives said in 2009, when they renewed their plea to the public for any witnesses to come forward, the Associated Press reported then.

At the time, detectives released new details about the suspected killer — a “shaggy-haired, bearded man in a trench coat and blue jeans” — based on two witnesses who said they had seen him leaving Klaas’s house, the AP reported.

Detectives had been able to obtain a DNA profile of Klaas’s murderer in the 1990s, but no profiles in the national DNA database were ever a match, according to the AP.

In statements over the weekend, the sheriff’s department did not name suspects or specify whether any arrests had been made — only noting that the case had been solved by using “familial DNA, which identified the killer.”

The use of familial DNA emerged over the past decade as a way for investigators to search for “close-to-perfect matches” among relatives of a convict, The Washington Post reported in 2008.

However, the technique has also attracted criticism and ethical questions from those who argue that family members could become “genetic informants” without consent.

“If practiced routinely, we would be subjecting hundreds of thousands of innocent people who happen to be relatives of individuals in the FBI database to lifelong genetic surveillance,” Tania Simoncelli, science adviser to the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Post at the time.

(We waited as long as we could for that update today but it was finally time to publish.  We will be updating this Bulletin accordingly this week.)

Truly life becomes a circle – with the present affected by the past for future outcomes (investigation, trial, sentencing) – with criminal evidence science.

We’ll keep you posted.

BNI Operatives: Situationally aware.

As always, be safe.

 

 

DNA-Collecting Pen, Text Message Retriever & Other Cool Stuff

Uzi Tactical Pen: Write, Collect DNA, Shatter Glass In An Emergency

The Uzi Tactical Pen, is a  unique writing instrument that can double up as a potentially life saving tool should the (admittedly, odd) situation arise.  The DNA Catcher, (located in the crown of the pen),  is very sharp, and designed for use as a jabbing weapon that causes extreme pain to your attacker (and an opportunity to flee), while giving you a sample of their DNA to deliver to police. The crown also functions as a glass breaker (i.e, for an emergency such as being stuck in your car – car accident, flooding…). Made out of high-grade aircraft aluminum, the Uzi Tac Pen can write upside down or under water.

Device Seziure V5:  Capture Texts, GPS Info, etc., from 4,000 mobiles, smartphones, and GPS devices

 

device seizure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Unless you are experienced in physical acquisition of mobile data, we suggest you coordinate with a digital forensics expert, depending on the purpose of the information recovery.)

In the manufacturer’s (Paraben) own words:

Depending on the Device and the Model, Device Seizure™ can Access the Following Data:
  • Current Text Messages
  • Deleted Text Messages
  • Phonebook (from the phone’s memory and the SIM card)
  • Call History including Received, Dialled and Missed Calls
  • Datebook, Scheduler, and Calendar
  • To-Do Lists
  • The Device’s Filesystem
  • System Files
  • Pictures and Videos
  • Java Files
  • Quicknotes
  • GPS Waypoints, Tracks, and Routes
  • RAM/ROM
  • PDA Databases
  • E-mail
  • Registry (Windows Mobile Devices)
  • Deleted Data

SenseAware really knows how to track a package

sensaware

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You’ve over-nighted an important document and need to know if it has definitely been received.  You can monitor FedEx online every 5 minutes (be advised that their status update lag can range from a few hours to a day) or you can use SenseAware.

FedEx has stepped up their tracking game with Senseaware, a drop-in sensor for packages that monitors every situation and condition of delivery possible.

This device is about the size of a BlackBerry, and it tracks situations( in near real time) such as exact location, whether or not the package has been opened or exposed to light. It even has a built-in accelerometer so it will detect when it has been dropped.

BNI Operatives: Street smart: info savvy.

As always, stay safe.

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