New bill would block law enforcement from broadly searching DNA testing company databases to solve crimes

Local News

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Should law enforcement be able to broadly search through the database of companies that provide do-it-yourself DNA testing kits such as 23andMe, Ancestry, or MyHeritage to solve crime? A new bill being drafted on Capitol Hill would block investigators from having that accessibility.

Salt Lake City resident Deb Blake has always been curious about her ethnicity and background because she was adopted. Two years ago, she sent in a DNA profile to get some answers.

“I’ve been very curious to see if I can find any biological family members, specifically on my father’s side,” said Blake. I was raised Argentinian my whole life, but I’m not Argentinian. I found I’m 30 percent Asian. That was super surprising.”

Blake is one of millions of Americans who submit their DNA samples every year. Privacy advocates say they’re concerned about that information being accessible to other parties.

“Most people who use these services are doing this for personal and medical information. They’re spitting into a tube to find some relatives and do some family history. Law enforcement is finding this very useful for their investigations to go on these little fishing expeditions and trying to see what they can discover,” said Connor Boyack, President of Libertas Institute. “These people don’t assume or have an idea that the government is going to have full access to this information and have it for whatever purposes that they want.”

Companies like 23andMe, Ancestry, and MyHeritage all have some form of statement on their website that says they don’t allow law enforcement to access their information to solve crimes. But some said their customer’s information may be subject to disclosure through a judicial or other government subpoena. Boyack said not all companies have the same protections.

“Even if you could consent to that, you can’t consent on behalf of everyone else who might want this to be private. We share our DNA with our siblings, parents, unborn children, distant relatives,” he said.

He said his organization spearheaded the bill that’s currently being drafted and sponsored by West Valley City Representative Craig Hall. Last year, they worked together on the Comprehensive Data Privacy Law passed by lawmakers that dealt with privacy on phones and computers. Boyack said this would be an extension of that.

“We realized this new DNA technology had emerged and our bill last year didn’t really address how our DNA in these databases is being used. That’s kind of a continuation of a conversation that we’ve been having for a while when it comes to privacy,” said Boyack.

Blake, who is a member of Utah Against Police Brutality, said she would need to read through the bill before taking a solid stance. But she feels strongly against allowing law enforcement to have broad access to DNA databases.

“I feel like it would be a violation of the Fourth Amendment and I would fully support a bill that protects citizens’ rights and privacy,” she said.

Weber County Michelle Holbrook who submitted a DNA testing kit last year said she doesn’t have a concern with law enforcement accessing her information through these companies.

“I think justice is justice. If someone linked to my DNA committed a crime, I would feel the same way as if it was just a random stranger,” said Holbrook. “I see their point that my extended family didn’t give permission, but it’s my DNA. I see it the same way if it was one of my family members or someone I loved that had been sexually assaulted or murdered and there was a tool that could be used to help track down the person responsible.”

She added, “When you take a DNA test willingly, you know your information is going to be out there. I think it is actually something you need to consider before you even do it.”

While the cases of investigators actually pulling information from these DNA companies are on the rare side, Boyack said if their bill passes, it would be the first piece of legislation in the country to restrict law enforcement in doing so.

“That’s important because Utah is a very pro-family history state. Where better to start this conversation than here in the State of Utah?” he said. “The Founding Fathers were very wise to have the Fourth Amendment. They said that the government can only invade someone’s privacy if they have probable cause. That means no general searches, no broadly going through someone’s neighborhood or an entire city, or an entire block. You have to be able to target specifically someone.”

He added, “Even if it’s for good purposes. We all want to solve cold cases. We all want to find bad guys, but traditional law enforcement investigative work is what’s going to have to get them to the point where they have a suspect. It’s a balance. Once they have reason, they can go get that person’s DNA. That’s going to be perfectly permissible because it’s individualized. It’s particularized. They have a suspect.”

Orem Chief Gary Giles, the President of the Utah Chief of Police Association said he was unable to comment until they could read through the details of the bill.

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