Orlando police detective Michael Fields was sure he had the break he needed right in front of him to close in on a serial rapist: a list of people whose DNA partially matched the man he hunted.
Then the list disappeared.
After a year of criticism from privacy advocates and genealogy experts, the owner of a popular DNA-sharing website had decided law enforcement had no right to consumer data unless those consumers agreed.
“It was devastating to know that there’s information out there,” Fields said. “It wasn’t fair.”
So he persuaded a judge to grant him access to the entire database, the genetic records of more than 1 million people who never agreed to a police search. It was the first court order in the nation for a blanket consumer DNA search, kept secret from those whose genetic code was involuntarily canvassed.
Genealogical databases are a potential gold mine for police detectives trying to solve difficult cases.
But law enforcement has plunged into this new world with little to no rules or oversight, intense secrecy and by forming unusual alliances with private companies that collect the DNA, often from people interested not in helping close cold cases but learning their ethnic origins and ancestry.