Customers Handed Over Their DNA. The Company Let the FBI Take a Look.

Amy Dockser Marcus:

The trouble started when the Federal Bureau of Investigation attorney made a personal appeal to Bennett Greenspan.

Mr. Greenspan, president of FamilyTreeDNA, was used to fielding requests from genealogists, customers, even friends of friends, seeking help with DNA testing. The FBI’s Steve Kramer wasn’t among them.

The company’s database of over 1.5 million customers could help solve heinous crimes, the attorney said. He wanted to upload DNA data in two cases to see if there were genetic links to other users. Turning up matches to even distant relatives might generate leads.

This wasn’t what his customers signed up for, Mr. Greenspan knew. People typically took DNA tests to find long-lost relatives or learn more about their ancestry. They didn’t expect their genetic data might become part of a criminal investigation.

But one case involved a dead child whose body had never been claimed. The other was from a rape crime scene. Mr. Greenspan was horrified by the details.

He didn’t tell the FBI attorney to come back with a court order. He didn’t stop to ponder the moral quandaries. He said yes on the spot.