A DNA Company Lets the FBI In


This episode of the journal is brought to you by merrill. Get personalized investment advice and guidance to help. Turn your ambitions into action. What would you like the power to do. Learn more at merrill dot com the explosion of at home d._n._a. Test kits which have been taken by millions of americans has has opened a new world of opportunity for law enforcement to solve crimes but there's no standard set of rules on whether police can access these databases and if they can under what circumstances that decision is largely left up to the people who run the d._n._a. Companies today on the show the inside story of how the founder of one of these companies wrestled with this decision and what his struggle all to define his relationship with law enforcement says about the future of d._n._a. Privacy welcome to the journal our show about about money business and power. I'm caitlyn bop and i'm ryan knutson. It's thursday september fifth. One day late in twenty seventeen bennett greenspan president of family tree d._n._a. Gets a phone call. Amy dr marcus covers healthcare for the wall street journal as the president of a d._n._a. Testing company bennett greenspan was no a stranger to getting phone calls from various. People often people would call him and say hey. I've got this perplexing results. Can you talk me through it and more or i don't understand my d._n._a. Results i need some extra help and he was a genealogist himself. You love doing it and so he would spend time with them but this particular the phone call was unusual because the person on the other end of the phone was an attorney for the f._b._i. The attorney for the f._b._i. I wanted to talk to him about d._n._a. Testing he explained to him that he had some d._n._a. From a really horrific crime facing you told him it was a rape a rape scene and they were running up against a dead end. They just could not identify. This suspect they had put the d._n._a. Into the f._b._i.'s national database and they were just coming up empty they didn't have leads to who this person was and any really wanted to try to catch him. Ben greenspan did not get into d._n._a. Testing for questions like this. He started the company because he was passionate about genealogy and he was looking for a new business opportunity he had spent can't most of his life running business selling supplies for for photography and he had sold the business and was sort of in between between things and he told me that he was hanging around the house a lot and he was starting to sort of <hes> alphabetize all all of the food and the cans and his kitchen. His wife said to him you know. Do you have something else you could be doing a hobby and he i did have a hobby in fact his hobby and his passion was genealogy. He has loved genealogy. He said since the age of twelve bennett has been interviewed about my grandmother died and later that night when people came to the house to offer their condolences. I was walking around with a piece of paper in a pencil saying essentially tell me about where are you from and where were your parents from and what were your aunts and uncles names and when they died died and when his wife sparked him to start thinking what's my next act. What should i be doing next. He decided that he was really interested in genealogy testing and he started the company in nineteen ninety nine and they started offering the test in two thousand family tree d._n._a. D._n._a. was one of the first companies to make dna testing. Commercially available greenspan took a technology that was mostly used by academics and turn it into a test this kid that everyday people could take it home mail back to the company and find out who they're related to and even where their ancestors came from now twenty years later. It's one of the largest d._n._a. Testing companies with a database of more than a million people. It was that database of customers that the f._b._i. The i attorney who called up greenspan about the rape case wanted to access and the f._b._i. Attorney said look you know you have a d._n._a. D._n._a. database that would allow access to a a wider pool of individuals. Could we somehow have our d._n._a. From the crime scene processed and turned into a dna data file and then could we upload that data file into your database and then just as this is done sort of ordinarily routinely with customers every day. Could we then see if there are any d._n._a. Matches any relatives relatives in your database who might be a match for our suspect so basically they wanted to use the family tree dna database by uploading the d._n._a. of the suspect to try to identify the suspect or at least identify some of the suspects relatives. They may not get the identity party of the suspect immediately but if we put the d._n._a. Into that database we may get a match a genetic match with a distant relative of our suspect the man that committed the crime they can start to fill in the blanks and then supplemented with other kinds of publicly likley available information and slowly slowly slowly narrow down the pool of suspects and how does greenspan react to this request from the f._b._i. To upload the d._n._a. D._n._a. data from this unsolved rape case. He said he thought about it but you know greenspan said to him pretty much immediately during the course of the conversation conversation that's okay. I'll let you do it. Do you have any doubts that it wasn't a good idea. He didn't seem to have doubts about it. He really leave felt that it was the right thing to do. He said i just felt as a human being as a citizen that i wanted to help not long after that the f. b. I. attorney came back with another brutal unsolved case. The second call took place in early twenty eighteen eighteen. He got the call again from the same f._b._i. Attorney that he had talked to and this case in some ways was even more horrifying to him because does he said it involved a dead child who did not have any identity known. He thought about that case in particular because he he thought to himself the very fact that there was this poor little child that nobody had come forward to claim that the child had been missing an unidentified for so so long he thought to himself who wouldn't report a dead child. You know maybe the family was involved in the child's death. I wonder if there's another child old in this family's home. What if this child might come to harm. What if i buy cooperating and trying to identify this child. I'm able to prevent some harm coming from another child. All of this was racing through his mind as he's thinking about giving permission to do another other data search in his database in the end. Bennett greenspan decided to give permission to the f._b._i. For a second time and was he able to help solve these crimes in the case of the missing child ultimately that specific case wasn't solved through who familial matching dna database it was someone called the tip line and gave them a tip that they fall out so traditional police methods yes what about the rape case the rape case. He said that he was told later. He didn't know at the time but he said that the rape case became part of this broader investigation instigation that ultimately led to the identification of the golden state killer. Why very famous case police police in sacramento county california believe they crack the long cold case of the golden state killer. They did a surveillance and they waited for him to discard something something into the public domain they then take that item back to the lab and try to generate a profile from that typically d._n._a. Samples from crime scenes are compared to the the f._b._i.'s database but in this case investigators did something very different. They turned to commercial d._n._a. Databases to find a family tree that led them to the a golden state killer suspect joseph dangelo. This could be the first time law enforcement use commercial dna databases to catch a killer to be clear family tree d._n._a. Was only part of what it helps. Solve the golden state killer case but the f._b._i. Told greenspan that it was a factor. The key breakthrough actually happened later when the data file file was uploaded to another dna database but the success of the case put police access to dna databases into the spotlight it generated generated some public debates about genetic privacy issues as well but it also sparked a lot of intense interest by all kinds of law enforcement local goals state federal in possibly exploring the use of this kind of genetic genealogy matching and and greenspan gets a call from the f._b._i. Attorney who says hey could we do. Could we do some more routine use of this could we could we use your lab abc. Could we do this more. Routinely and greenspan's initial reaction at this point is is no no i. I prefer not to do that because he's sort of willing to help out in one in case but he doesn't necessarily want to formalize the relationship in the way that the f._b._i. Immediately wants to do correct you know the way he described it to me. Was it's one thing to be like. You know a good citizen. When these urgent cases i was worried potentially that another person might be in harm's way but but this other requests it just sort of like saying you know. Would you possibly think about opening up this other sort of arm of business and his initial reaction was no oh but the f._b._i. Attorney wouldn't give up. He continued to call greenspan regularly. Sometimes he just called a chat other times. He'd be more direct and make another request to access family tree d._n._a. Data but ben greenspan saw himself as a genealogist attend a businessman not a crime solver and yet the f._b._i. Kept calling eventually greenspan had to make a decision about his customers chris data fats after the break. This episode of the journal is brought to you by merrill with merrill straightforward advice and personalized guidance. You have the power to put your plans into action. Whether it's pursuing a passion project or shaping your legacy. What would you like the power to do. Learn more at merrill dot com investing in securities involves risks and there's always the potential of losing money merrill makes available products and services offered by merrill lynch pierce fenner and smith incorporated a registered broker dealer member s._i._p._c. <music> bene- greenspan had allowed the f._b._i. To access his d._n._a. Database to help them investigate too cold cases and now he had to decide whether to share even more the other major d._n._a. Companies like twenty three and me and ancestry dot com say they don't cooperate operate willingly with law enforcement unless they get a court order or a subpoena but with family tree d._n._a. The f._b._i. Wanted to make a special deal. Let's cut cut out the middleman and come straight to you the f._b._i. Attorney didn't give up. He said look you know i'm going to come to hugh was subpoenas now on a really frequent basis. Wouldn't it be easier. If you know you don't have to go through this need to have lawyers and subpoenas. Isn't there a way that we could find an arrangement that we could work together and he said that he felt that he did not want to deal with that. He does not have an in house lawyer. He was using outside attorneys. You know on an as needed basis and he said that he didn't want to have his own personal passion the kind of family genealogy he didn't want to be distracted from that with having to deal with subpoenas and that was another sort of factor in in his thinking on well. Maybe i should make a decision. Greenspan decided to do it to formally allow the f._b._i. To access says his d._n._a. Database greenspan said that he did not feel that the kind of access that the f._b._i. Would have would be any different than a typical customer. It wasn't that in his view he wasn't giving access unfettered access to genetic information the information from the f._b._i. Would receive in return would be the information. A customer would receive in return. You know they charge the f._b._i. For the service of creating reading the files uploading the data you know in doing the genetic matching and sort of like talking to them to sort of walk them through some of the stuff so it's not like like it's done as a free service. It's still a business <hes> so he's sort of saying the f._b._i. Is basically like any other customer the end of the day that was his viewpoint viewpoint. What was the ultimate arrangement that family tree d._n._a. Struck with the f._b._i. They agreed that they would on a regular basis. Allow the f._b._i. Under certain sort of restrictions on the types of cases that the debate over what types of cases kind of went back and forth but ultimately and cases involving homicide sexual assault child kidnapping and the identification of deceased individuals to be the types of cases that they were willing to allow searching they also determined a system of consent what they said is that it anyone who's in the database in the united states u._s. Customers they would consider them available for law enforcement matching zhang and less those customers took affirmative steps to opt out of it so greenspan makes the decision to they work with the f._b._i. And how does he decide to tell his customers about his decision. He goes i with his marketing director and they sit down together and and one of the points that the marketing director sort assessed to him. Is we really need to explain to customers. Will there be any limits. Like where are we gonna draw the lines and that's a question that is really hard to answer and i think overall you know. Greenspan feels so strongly that this is an important thing to do and if i just if i could sort of like sit down with every customer and explain it to them. I know they'll see it my way 'cause i really believe in this the plan they had was they wanted to create eight videos he says i don't want to just send out an email. I i'd really like to have videos or something where i can really almost i feel like i'm having a personal conversation with my customer and they can really see my facial expressions and how important this is to me and they make a plan to to do that but he's going on vacation. This is a long planned vacation in mid december two thousand eighteen and they they decide that upon upon his return in january two thousand nineteen they'll work on these videos but the plan didn't go exactly as they wanted <hes> they got a call from a a reporter at buzzfeed who said he was working on a story. They weren't able to sort of roll out the announcement in the way they wanted to do it and when the buzzfeed story appeared they were really surprised by the public reaction it got widely discussed both among genealogists you know in this community of people that they knew very well more widely i mean it was picked up and discussed by other publications ends and greenspan's started getting you know a whole range of comments including a lot of pushback family tree d._n._a. It quickly published the videos of greenspan explaining his decision. I would never do anything to betray the trust of my customers. There's and at the same time i felt it important to enable my customers to crowd source the catching of criminals but greenspan's still faced criticism well. There were a lot of people who were upset by the the fact that a single individual you know at a company could make a decision that would have impact on a lot of people. He told me that he had friends. You know personal friends who said to him. You know it just makes me really uncomfortable when you take d._n._a. Test i you are expecting to find a relative perhaps but you're not expecting that the person on the other side of the match might be a law enforcement person who's doing an investigation asian and so that was part of the reaction to you know i spoke with many people who said i don't feel comfortable with law enforcement searching but i'm okay with having my day to use for research with pharmaceutical companies and other people who said exactly the opposite companies make these distinctions and then customers customers are informed about well you know twenty three and me asks customers if they are willing to consent to have data used in research coach and when they signed their deal with pharmaceutical company they sent an email saying if you don't want consent for research for pharmaceutical companies you can withdraw consent that approach of asking customers to withdraw their consent is what family tree d._n._a. Had offered its customers but not many people did data but according to greenspan fewer than two percent have opted out so that's a small number now greenspan's viewpoint is this confirms what i believed which is people understand that this is being done to solve terrible crimes and that as good citizens of a society we have a vested interest in finding criminals and helping solve missing persons cases or unidentified. If i'd victims we want to bring closure to families. I think that my decision was the correct. One genetic privacy experts argue will you really can't know for sure because does people have to take proactive steps and people don't like to take proactive steps. It's it's a very complicated to explain to them. How do you know for sure that they've consented. Therefore the most ethical thing to do is go to every single person and tell them if you want to do this if you share my vision that this is an important thing for society you you should ogden and consent and be affirmative that you want to participate in this lesson is here for people who are maybe thinking thinking about doing one of these d._n._a. Tests themselves. I think that often people get d._n._a. Tests as gifts and they think it's fun on and that it's sort of a light kind of almost piece of entertainment won't this be wonderful and you know what for many people it is. It's amazing the things you can find out there've been there are so many wonderful heartwarming stories and there's also a lot of surprises that have come before you decide to do a test at least understand then what are the rules of the company that you've chosen and do they fit your viewpoints. Your vision for what you wanna do with your d._n._a. Bennett greenspan i understand. He hasn't really told his story before. Why do you think you decided to talk to you. I think that you you know he was surprised. In some i think and and felt a little bit misunderstood at the public controversy i mean there are other people who are weighed in and said you shouldn't have been surprised but he did feel surprised and i think that he wanted to explain blaine his reasons for doing so and i think that he believes that if he's able to explain it that more people will agree with him <music> then we'll not whether he's right in that few points remains to be seen <hes> <music> kate here in yesterday's episode we looked at we work the most highly valued startup in the u._s. and and how as the company prepares for its i._p._o. Questions are being raised about its business model and high valuation. Today sources tell the wall street street journal that we works parent company is considering slashing its valuation in half from forty seven billion dollars to around twenty billion dollars dollars and we work has also been talking to one of its biggest investors about delaying the i._p._o. For more background on we work tune into yesterday's episode code. Thanks for listening. We'll see you tomorrow.

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