In response to FTDNA

The Legal Genealogist doesn’t usually write about DNA day after day.

But I surely will when the issue remains hot — and there are reasons to do so.

Today, there are two reasons to do so, both stemming from the disclosure late last week that Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) had changed its terms of use without notice to allow law enforcement to submit crime scene samples into its database and obtain matching data about all customers those samples match — data that can include names, email addresses, matching segment data, family trees and more about thousands of people out to the distant cousin level.1

First and foremost, it’s critical for FTDNA customers to understand that the letter sent yesterday by the president of Family Tree DNA attempting to explain the reasons behind the change makes it clear that the company is continuing to allow law enforcement to submit crime scene samples and review data about customers who match those samples.2

The letter takes the position that it can allow this under terms of use adopted in May 2018 that said that no-one could “use the Services for any law enforcement purposes, forensic examinations, criminal investigations, and/or similar purposes without the required legal documentation and written permission from FamilyTreeDNA.”

It says this language complies with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) even though it did not then and does not now define “required legal documentation.” And the letter does not address the fact that the company’s privacy statement says that personal information (defined to include name, email, profile information and more) would be disclosed only “if we believe it is reasonably necessary to … comply with a valid legal process (e.g., subpoenas, warrants)…” and promises: “If compelled to disclose your Personal Information to law enforcement, we will do our best, unless prohibited by law, to provide you with notice.”3

So understand that nothing has changed about police use of FTDNA: the company is continuing to allow law enforcement to submit crime scene samples and review data about customers who match those samples.

The second reason to address this issue again today is this line from that letter to FTDNA customers yesterday: “We’ve received an incredible amount of support from those of you who believe this is an opportunity for honest, law-abiding citizens to help catch bad guys and bring closure to devastated families.”

Sigh… talk about a logical fallacy here — meaning, in this context, the kind of argument that says two things are much the same when in fact they are not.

Here, the logical fallacy is this: if you support handing over access to customer data to the police without advance notice and without judicial oversight, you’re an honest-law abiding citizen. The converse logical fallacy is that if you believe in personal privacy, support the rule of law and having a company keep its promise to its customers, you’re not an honest law-abiding citizen.

not equal

This sort of logical fallacy doesn’t ever go unnoticed — and it does not play well.

Here’s just a very small sampling of how some of FTDNA’s customers are reacting to its use:

• “So all of us are unprincipled lawbreakers if we do not take up Mr. Greenspan’s offer of ‘…an opportunity for honest, law-abiding citizens to help catch bad guys….’ A really poor strategy, and choice of words, trying to shame customers into compliance.”

• “The statement ‘We’ve received an incredible amount of support from those of you who believe this is an opportunity for honest, law-abiding citizens to help catch bad guys and bring closure to devastated families’ is a slap in the face of those who disagree. Mr. Greenspan insinuates that those of us who disagree with the actions taken by FTDNA are not honest and law-abiding citizens.”

• “What also bothers me is that he framed those who objected as those who don’t want to help catch criminals. Very manipulative.”

So let’s set the record straight here and try to keep the argument focused on the issues:

• Taking a position on personal privacy has nothing whatsoever to do with being (or not being) an honest, law-abiding citizen.

 

• Taking a position on personal privacy has nothing whatsoever to do with wanting (or not wanting) to catch bad guys.

Honest, law-abiding citizens who want bad guys to be caught can come down on either side of the police-access-to-genealogical-DNA-databases debates — and nobody, but nobody, should try to shame them into going along with something they truly don’t believe in by manipulative name calling.

It’s a logical fallacy.

And arguments had best be a whole lot better than that if people truly are to be “more comfortable” with this notion.


Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “The logical fallacy,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 4 Feb 2019 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed (date)).

SOURCES

  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Opening the DNA floodgates,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 1 Feb 2019 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 4 Feb 2019). Also “One little change,” posted 3 Feb 2019, and “A letter from Bennett Greenspan,” posted 3 Feb 2019.
  2. See ibid., “A letter from Bennett Greenspan,” posted 3 Feb 2019.
  3. For the definition of personal information, see Paragraph 3A(i), “The types of Information FamilyTreeDNA collects,” inFamilyTreeDNA Privacy Statement,FamilyTreeDNA (https://www.familytreedna.com/legal/privacy-statement). For the promise about disclosure, see ibid., Paragraph 5D, “How FamilyTreeDNA shares your information: For Legal or Regulatory Process.”
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