Some would argue he has broken every ethical and moral rule of his in his profession, but genealogist Bennett Greenspan prefers to see himself as a crime-fighter.
“I spent many, many nights and many, many weekends thinking of what privacy and confidentiality would mean to a genealogist such as me,” the founder and president of FamilyTreeDNA says in a video that appeared online yesterday.
He continues: “I would never do anything to betray the trust of my customers and at the same time I felt it important to enable my customers to crowd source the catching of criminals.”
The video and surrounding press release went out at 10.30pm on Thursday. Funnily enough, just a couple of hours earlier, BuzzFeed offered a very different take on Greenspan’s philanthropy. “One Of The Biggest At-Home DNA Testing Companies Is Working With The FBI,” reads the headline.
Here’s how FamilyTreeDNA works, if you don’t know: among other features, you submit a sample of your DNA to the biz, and it will tell you if you’re related to someone else who has also submitted their genetic blueprint. It’s supposed to find previously unknown relatives, check parentage, and so on.
And so, by crowd sourcing, what Greenspan means is that he has reached an agreement with the FBI to allow the agency to create new profiles on his system using DNA collected from, say, corpses, crime scenes, and suspects. These can then be compared with genetic profiles in the company’s database to locate and track down relatives of suspects and victims, if not the suspects and victims themselves.
Those profiles have been built by customers who have paid between $79 and $199 to have their generic material analyzed, in large part to understand their personal history and sometimes find connections to unknown family members. The service and others like it have become popular with adopted children who wish to locate birth parents but are prevented from being given by the information by law.
However, there is a strong expectation that any company storing your most personal generic information will apply strict confidentiality rules around it. You could argue that handing it over to the Feds doesn’t meet that standard. Greenspan would disagree.
“Greenspan created FamilyTreeDNA to help other family researchers solve problems and break down walls to connect the dots of their family trees,” reads a press release rushed out to head off, in vain, any terrible headlines.
“Without realizing it, he had inadvertently created a platform that, nearly two decades later, would help law enforcement agencies solve violent crimes faster than ever.”
Crime fighting, it seems, overrides all other ethical considerations.
Unfortunately for Greenspan, the rest of his industry doesn’t agree. The Future of Privacy Forum, an organization that maintains a list of consumer DNA testing companies that have signed up to its privacy guidelines struck FamilyTreeDNA off its list today.
Its VP of policy, John Verdi, told Bloomberg that the deal between FamilyTreeDNA and the FBI was “deeply flawed.” He went on: “It’s out of line with industry best practices, it’s out of line with what leaders in the space do, and it’s out of line with consumer expectations.”