The story of filmmaker Michael Usry’s arrest seems like it could have come straight from an episode of CSI. A New Orleans-based filmmaker known for his violent, murder-centered films, he was suspected of the 1996 murder of a young woman in Idaho Falls, Idaho. In early 2015, using DNA his father submitted to a private genetics company owned by Ancestry.com, police narrowed down on the filmmaker. Usry submitted his DNA to authorities and when it didn’t match, he was found innocent. However, as Wired reports in an article today, the method the cops used to narrow down on Usry–employing private genetics companies’ databases to find a suspect–brings to the forefront the already heightened concerns over the use and privacy laws of commercial DNA testing through companies such as Ancestry and 23andMe.
Back in 1996, a suspect was convicted of the murder soon after it took place. However, amid concerns that the wrong man was convicted, the police turned to a controversial technique known as familial searching, which searches a DNA database to look for close biological relatives to unknown DNA that was obtained at the crime scene. The technique looks for partial matches where both DNA share common alleles, or pieces of DNA.
Using this method, the Idaho Falls authorities matched Usry’s father with 34 of the 35 alleles. His father had entered his DNA samples into the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, which had been acquired through Ancestry. They searched for his close relatives and narrowed down on Usry, claiming he had ties to the area where the crime was committed, and that his murder-based horror films were signs of his deranged mind.
When they tested Usry’s DNA, though, it didn’t match the DNA that was found at the crime scene. In an interview with The New Orleans Advocate, where Usry’s story was first reported, Sgt. James Hoffman of the Idaho Falls Police Department said, “It turned out to be nothing. I wish it wasn’t a dead end, but it was.”
However, his story most certainly opens the doors for concern over whether familial searching should be used, and, perhaps just as importantly, whether police who are looking to make an arrest should be allowed access to the DNA found in private databases like Ancestry and 23andMe, to which individuals who are curious about their health or family lineage submit their DNA.
Back when Ancestry and 23andMe first started sending out DNA kits, skeptics raised concerns over what the companies were going to do once they had a ginormous database of human DNA. Concerns over whether they were going to sell the DNA to drug companies or insurance companies are still being raised and now, given Usry’s case, law enforcement and crime stopping can be added to the list.
As Fusion reports, the FBI already has a national genetic database, but this instance is the first time they employed private genetic databases to narrow down their search. Both companies’ policies mention that, if given a court order, they will turn DNA information over to authorities, and they acknowledge that this has happened before, and they have complied.
23andMe’s privacy officer, Kate Black (who just joined the company in February) tells Fusion that the company plans to publish a transparency report in the next few months, which would detail the exact amount of government requests that it receives and how many it actually complies with. “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,” Black tells Fusion.
Ancestry hasn’t mentioned any plans to provide a similar report just yet. The database that was used to find Usry was already available to the public. Since then, the database has been taken down. Further, when the police came to Ancestry.com with a warrant to get Usry’s father’s name, the company complied.
Usry’s case is not likely to be the last like it. As the cost of DNA analysis gets cheaper and the amount of DNA companies have continues to grow, the use of familial DNA searching is only going to increase, reports Wired. Perhaps Usry’s case is a cautionary tale for all parties involved. In the future, states may consider whether public safety authorities should be able to run searches through private genetic databases. And, as Fusion reports, “If the idea of investigators poking through your DNA freaks you out, both Ancestry and 23andMe have options to delete your information with the sites. 23andMe says it will delete information within 30 days upon request.”