Orlando police granted first-ever genealogy website warrant

History has been made in Orange County.  

The Orlando Police Department has become the first law enforcement agency to be granted a warrant for a genealogy website.  Ancestry website GEDmatch helped Orlando police solve a 2001 murder case by providing access to its DNA database, but earlier this year, police say the website changed its privacy policy, blocking detectives.

“I absolutely understood why they’re trying to do that. They’re trying to protect their consumers, but everything that we do in law enforcement starts out free or easy and always evolves to subpoena or a search warrant,” said Michael Fields, a homicide detective at the Orlando Police Department.

Det. Fields says he felt the site could be useful in a new case.  His team wrote up the first-ever search warrant for a genealogy site.

“The judge took 24 hours to review it, and the judge eventually signed the search warrant,” Fields said.

On July 14, 2019, Judge Patricia Strowbridge, of Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit, approved it.   Fields would not share how the database assisted the investigation but is content with the progress in the investigation.

“I am very pleased with where the case is going,” Fields said.

The ruling is getting national attention because of a potential ripple effect.

“An attorney for law enforcement or a prosecutor who is trying to seek this information could say, 'Look at the reasoning used by this judge - Judge Strowbridge in the Ninth Judicial Circuit of Florida - in Orange County and we’re asking you to apply the same reasoning in allowing us access to this information in our case,'” said Whitney Boan, attorney and legal expert.

But, Boan says the ruling does not set a binding precedent.

“It doesn’t really have any precedential effect on any other courts," she said. "It doesn’t require any judge anywhere to follow this judge’s order."

Popular sites ancestry and 23andmMe are sounding off.  Ancestry released a statement that reads, in part:

“Ancestry believes that GEDmatch could have done more to protect the privacy of its users by pushing back on the warrant or even challenging it in court. Their failure to do so is highly irresponsible and deeply concerning to all of us here at ancestry.”

23andMe released a statement that reads, in part,  “It certainly troubles us here at 23andMe. Perhaps just as disturbing is GEDmatch’s apparent lack of scrutiny and challenge of the validity of the warrant issued.”

Both sites are vowing to do as much as possible to protect their customer’s privacy.  Case law on the issue is expected in the near future.  Det. Fields is hoping law enforcement across the country can gain access to all databases.

“It would open up every criminal case and make the genealogy part extremely easy,” Fields said. “So many cases would be solved overnight.”

Boan reminds people if you’re providing your information to any company despite their privacy policy, a judge has the power to allow law enforcement access to it.

We reached out to GEDmatch for comment but did not hear back.