In 2014, police in Idaho Falls, Idaho, were trying to solve a cold case from 1996, in which a young woman was murdered in her apartment. Police obtained DNA from the scene, but could not match it in criminal databases. So they went to a then-public database started by the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, which held results for roughly 100,000 DNA tests and had recently been purchased by Ancestry.
That analysis and other matches led police to question a man named Michael Usry Jr., a New Orleans filmmaker. But after police took a sample of his DNA, they found — many weeks later — it did not match the sample found at the crime scene.
Murphy cites the false match as a cautionary tale. On the one hand, she said, DNA absolved Usry of murder. But before that, it put him under a cloud of suspicion for weeks. “Imagine what that would be like,” she said. “Imagine what that would mean if an employer, or a girlfriend, found out.”
Following that case, Ancestry put the Sorenson database behind a firewall and took other measures to tighten up its privacy policies, and other big consumer genetics companies followed suit. In response to the East Area Rapist case on Thursday, 23andMe went further than Ancestry by stating it is “our policy to resist law enforcement inquiries to protect customer privacy.”