Americans curious whether any of their ancestors may have come over on the Mayflower or signed the Declaration of Independence should consider the legal nightmare the genealogical website Ancestry.com created for a New Orleans man.
Someone else’s DNA sample, a few Facebook friends who lived over 1,500 miles away, a few award-winning films that included murder as a theme and a website that violated its own privacy guidelines became the perfect storm for filmmaker Michael Usry Jr., making him a murder suspect, reported the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Usry’s problems begin in 1996 when a young woman named Nancy Dodge was murdered in a small Idaho town. Despite collecting semen from the crime scene, police were unable to match the DNA of the likely suspect to anyone in any criminal database, resulting in the case going cold until last year.
Investigators reopened the case by casting a wider genetic net, testing the sample in their files to identify familial connections to the suspected killer. Using a lab linked to a private genetic-genealogical database called the Sorenson Database, now owned by Ancestry.com, a DNA profile that included YSTR and mtDNA – two genetic markers used to identify patrilineal and matrilineal relationships – was extracted. This was done without a warrant or court order.
With more than 100,000 DNA samples and documented multi-generational family histories from “volunteers in more than 100 countries,” Sorenson bills itself as the “the foremost collection of genetic-genealogy data in the world.” Those volunteers, many of which were Mormons, were promised by Sorenson that submitted DNA would be used only for “genealogical services, including the determination of family-migration patterns and geographic origins,” and the profiles would be assigned “protected” names to assure anonymity and would not be shared with outsiders.
Those promises notwithstanding, Sorenson ran the murder suspect’s DNA profile against the Sorenson Database, identifying 41 potential family matches, with one matching on 34 of 35 alleles, or gene variants. At the request of Idaho authorities – and without a warrant – Sorenson released the full name, address and other information for the volunteer’s private data.