’s Promise of Privacy isn’t Real

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Michael Usry Jr. is an example of what happens when a company doesn’t abide by its own privacy policy.


Usry found himself being investigated for a cold-case murder in Idaho after an business, Sorenson Database, which has about 100,000 DNA samples on file, shared its database with Idaho Falls police without asking for a warrant.


After matches came up, police obtained a warrant requiring to provide the “protected” name of donors and all “all information including full names, date of births, date and other information pertaining to the original donor to the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy project,” according to Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).


This allowed police to locate Usry Jr.’s father, but he didn’t fit the age profile of their suspect. So they turned to Usry Jr., and after discovering some thin connections and circumstantial evidence, detectives contacted him and lied to get him to come in for questioning. Usry particularly piqued investigators’ interest when they found he was a filmmaker who specialized in horror films.


“They took him to an interrogation room, questioned him without a lawyer present, and eventually collected a DNA sample. Then Usry sat on pins and needles for a month waiting for the results,” Lynch wrote.


Fortunately for Usry, the DNA sample did not link him to the 1996 murder of Angie Dodge.


Usry would never have gone through this ordeal if Sorensen had just lived up to its consent form, which says: “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.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

How Private DNA Data Led Idaho Cops on a Wild Goose Chase and Linked an Innocent Man to a 20-Year-Old Murder Case (by Jennifer Lynch, Electronic Frontier Foundation) Caught Sharing Customer DNA Data with Police with No Warrant (by Jay Syrmopoulos, Free Thought Project)

New Orleans Filmmaker Cleared in Cold-Case Murder; False Positive Highlights Limitations of Familial DNA Searching (by Jim Mustian, New Orleans Advocate)


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