Idaho Falls, Idaho - Would you find it frightening— perhaps even downright Orwellian — to know that a DNA swab that you sent to a company for recreational purposes would surface years later in the hands of police? What if it caused your child to end up in a police interrogation room as the primary suspect in a murder investigation?
In an extremely troubling case out of Idaho Falls, that’s exactly what happened.
Police investigating the 1996 murder of Angie Dodge targeted the wrong man as the suspect, after looking to Ancestry.com owned Sorensen Database labs for help. The labs look for familial matches between the murderers DNA and DNA submitted for genealogical testing after failing to find a match using traditional methods.
According to The Electronic Frontier Foundation:
The cops chose to use a lab linked to a private collection of genetic genealogical data called the Sorenson Database (now owned by Ancestry.com), which claims it’s “the foremost collection of genetic genealogy data in the world.” The reason the Sorenson Database can make such an audacious claim is because it has obtained its more than 100,000 DNA samples and documented multi-generational family histories from “volunteers in more than 100 countries around the world.” Some of these volunteers were encouraged by the Mormon Church—well-known for its interest in genealogy—to provide their genetic material to the database. Sorenson promised volunteers their genetic data would only be used for “genealogical services, including the determination of family migration patterns and geographic origins” and would not be shared outside Sorenson.
Its consent form states:
The only individuals who will have access to the codes and genealogy information will be the principal investigator and the others specifically authorized by the Principal Investigator, including the SMGF research staff.
Despite this promise, Sorenson shared its vast collection of data with the Idaho police. Without a warrant or court order, investigators asked the lab to run the crime scene DNA against Sorenson’s private genealogical DNA database. Sorenson found 41 potential familial matches, one of which matched on 34 out of 35 alleles—a very close match that would generally indicate a close familial relationship. The cops then asked, not only for the “protected” name associated with that profile, but also for all “all information including full names, date of births, date and other information pertaining to the original donor to the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy project.”
*We must note that while Sorenson did run the sample for police, they did not hand over any identifying information to police, even after being requested to do so by authorities, until after police had secured a warrant from a judge.
A promising “partial match” emerged between the semen sample and the genetic profile of someone within the Sorenson database. Although the name was initially shielded, police finally sought a court order last summer to require Ancestry.com to reveal Usry’s name to the police, despite it being listed as “protected” in the Sorenson database.
Ancestry.com failed to respond to questions about how frequently it receives court orders in criminal investigations or if the company attempts to resist law enforcement requests for peoples’ private genetic information, according to The New Orleans Advocate.
At this point in the story things became even more convoluted. The DNA from the Ancestry.com database linked a man, Michael Usry, to the case that didn’t fit the police profile, as he was born in 1952.
The cops then used the genetic information and traced his line of male descendants, ultimately finding his son Michael Usry Jr., born in 1979, which much more closely fit the police profile of the killer.
Once they had targeted Ursy Jr. as the suspect, they began to scour his Facebook page looking for connections to Idaho, finding a couple of Facebook friends that lived in the area of Idaho Falls.
Police then, by Google searching, realized that Usry Jr. was a filmmaker and had done some short films containing murder scenes. Law enforcement subsequently got a warrant for Usry Jr.’s DNA based upon the completely circumstantial evidence presented by Idaho investigators.
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The cops then called Usry Jr. and asked him to meet them, under the guise that they were investigating a hit-and-run accident. Thinking he “had nothing to hide,” he agreed to meet with the investigators, without an attorney present. He was subsequently taken to an interrogation room where he eventually allowed them to collect his DNA.
Despite the flimsy circumstantial evidence used to get the warrant, ultimately the test showed that although there were a number of familial alleles shared with the murderers sample, Usry Jr.'s DNA did not conclusively match the killers.
This case is particularly troubling as it seems to decimate an individual’s right to privacy in the name of “public safety,” while allowing the police to run roughshod over people's civil rights.
“It’s not very common to see this sort of thing, and I frankly hope it doesn’t become very common because an awful lot of people won’t bother testing” their DNA, Judy G. Russell, a genealogist and attorney who writes The Legal Genealogist blog, told The New Orleans Advocate.
There is one key difference between traditional DNA testing and familial testing. The traditional method consists of taking a sample and looking for a specific match with a given database, such as the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, while familial searching looks for common alleles, or gene variants.
According to Voices of Liberty:
Proponents argue familial searching is a harmless way for police to crack otherwise unsolvable cases. The closest partial matches can steer investigators toward a criminal’s family members, whose DNA profiles closely resemble those of a convicted or incarcerated relative.
Skeptics like Murphy, the NYU law professor, warn that the technique drastically expands DNA testing beyond the function envisioned by states that compel criminal defendants to submit DNA samples upon arrest. Many states lack formal legal rules governing the use of familial searching by law enforcement, while Maryland has explicitly outlawed the practice.
This case exposes the very real danger posed to privacy and civil liberties by familial DNA searches and by private, unregulated DNA databases.This case only serves as a glimpse into the dystopian reality we will soon find ourselves living in, according to The Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“This risk will increase further as state and local law enforcement agencies begin to use Rapid DNA analyzers—portable machines that can process DNA in less than an hour. These machines will make it much easier for police to collect and analyze DNA on their own outside a lab. Currently, because forensic DNA analysis in a lab takes so long, we generally see its use limited to high-level felonies like rape and murder. However, Rapid DNA manufacturers are now encouraging local police agencies to analyze DNA found at the scene of low-level property crimes. This means much more DNA will be collected and stored, often in under-regulated local DNA databases. And, because most of the forensic DNA found at property crime scenes is likely to be touch DNA—this only increases the risk that people will be implicated in crimes they didn’t commit."
Is this really the kind of future we want to create for our children? Shouldn’t we be able to research and learn about our family's genealogical ancestry without fear that police will be reviewing our genetic information without our consent?
This case makes it clear that even when a private business states in writing that your data will be held as private and safe from prying eyes, that may very well not be what transpires.
Update: A spokesperson for Ancestry.com reached out to The Free Thought Project and provided this statement. "The genetic information provided by our DNA customers is personal and we have strict standards in place to protect their identities and the integrity of their data. These standards are our first priority. 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."
Jay Syrmopoulos is an investigative journalist, freethinker, researcher, and ardent opponent of authoritarianism. He is currently a graduate student at University of Denver pursuing a masters in Global Affairs. Jay's work has previously been published on BenSwann.com and WeAreChange.org. You can follow him on Twitter @sirmetropolis, on Facebook at Sir Metropolis and now on tsu.