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Ancestry.com Denied Law Enforcement Access to its DNA Database

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  • In Ancestry.com’s annual Transparency Report, the company revealed that it denied a request from law enforcement to access its DNA databases.
  • This was one of nine data requests that came from law enforcement in 2019. The remaining eight were not related to DNA, and were pertaining to credit card misuse, fraud, and identity theft.
  • Ancestry said it only gave information in response to six of the requests but maintained that the privacy of its users is its “top priority.”
  • While police having access to these kinds of databases has caused concern in the past, DNA collected from these sites has been used to make arrests in the past, including the arrest of the alleged Golden State Killer. 

Ancestry Denies Access

Ancestry.com denied a law enforcement request to access its DNA database, according to its 2019 Transparency Report

“Ancestry received one request seeking access to Ancestry’s DNA database through a search warrant,” the report explained. “Ancestry challenged the warrant on jurisdictional grounds and did not provide any customer data in response.”

According to BuzzFeed News, that request came from a court in Pennsylvania. Ancestry told BuzzFeed that the warrant was improperly served.

“Ancestry has not received any follow up from law enforcement on this matter,”  Ancestry told the outlet. 

Reports indicate that Ancestry has about 16 million DNA profiles in its user database. In 2019, they received nine requests from law enforcement to access their user data. The request from Pennsylvania was the only one seeking Ancestry’s DNA database. The remaining eight involved credit card misuse, fraud, and identity theft. 

The majority of the requests came on the state level, with only two coming from federal authorities. Seven of the requests were criminal subpoenas, and the remaining two were search warrants. 

Ancestry Takes the Side of Privacy

Ancestry said they only gave information in response to six out of the nine requests. They maintain that they want to protect their customers’ privacy, referring to it as their “top priority” in their transparency report. 

“Not only will we not share customer information with law enforcement unless compelled to by valid legal process, such as a court order or search warrant, we will also always advocate for our customers’ privacy and seek to narrow the scope of any compelled disclosure, or even eliminate it entirely,” the company said in a statement obtained by Axios.

They are not alone in taking the side of protecting privacy. 23andme, their largest competitor, has taken the same stance, and vows to protect the information they have from their 10 million profiles.

Some similar but smaller companies do share information. Family Tree DNA allows police to access data, and so does GEDmatch. However, while GEDmatch used to be open, users must now opt into allowing that access. 

Cases Solved by DNA Websites

The conversation around whether or not that data, which is submitted by users, should remain private is an ongoing conversation. Some of these users may not even know that the information they submit can be requested by officers. Still, companies like Ancestry have a large collection of genetic data, and law enforcement could find this data useful when solving criminal cases. 

In fact, genealogy websites have been used in the past to solve high-profile crimes. They played a huge hand in catching the alleged Golden State Killer. Joseph James DeAngelo, who is suspected of being behind a series of rapes and murders in California in the 70s and 80s, was arrested back in 2018. Authorities narrowed their search down to him using GEDmatch. 

According to the Sacramento Bee, investigators used GEDmatch to match crime-scene DNA with information supplied by one of his relatives. DNA collection sites have been used to solve other types of crime too, including a case of identity theft.

But, the use of these cases does not come without their legal question marks. Paul Holes, a retired investigator who led the investigation into the Golden State Killer told BuzzFeed that he thinks this could be a debate we have for a while.

“Of course there are going to be legal battles,” he said. “It would not surprise me, years down the road, if this could be a US Supreme Court issue.”

As far as what Ancestry would ever do if this issue did ever make its way to the Supreme Court, it seems it would still stand its ground.

“[W]e will also always advocate for our customers’ privacy and seek to narrow the scope of any compelled disclosure, or even eliminate it entirely,” a spokesperson told Axios.

See what others are saying: (BuzzFeed News) (Axios) (Fortune)

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SAT Drops Subject Tests and Optional Essay Section

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  • The College Board will discontinue SAT subject tests effective immediately and will scrap the optional essay section in June. 
  • The organization cited the coronavirus pandemic as part of the reason for accelerating these changes.
  • Regarding subject tests, the College Board said the other half of the decision rested on the fact that Advanced Placement tests are now more accessible to low-income students and students of color, making subject tests unnecessary. 
  • It also said it plans to launch a digital version of the SAT in the near future, despite failing to implement such a plan last year after a previous announcement.

College Board Ends Subject Tests and Optional Essay

College Board announced Tuesday that it will scrap the SAT’s optional essay section, as well as subject tests.

Officials at the organization cited the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the reason for these changes, saying is has “accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to simplify our work and reduce demands on students.”

The decision was also made in part because Advanced Placement tests, which College Board also administers, are now available to more low-income students and students of color. Thus, College Board has said this makes SAT subject tests unnecessary. 

While subject tests will be phased out for international students, they have been discontinued effective immediately in the U.S. 

Regarding the optional essay, College Board said high school students are now able to express their writing skills in a variety of ways, a factor which has made the essay section less necessary.

With several exceptions, it will be discontinued in June.

The Board Will Implement an Online SAT Test

In its announcement, College Board also said it plans to launch a revised version of the SAT that’s aimed at making it “more flexible” and “streamlined” for students to take the test online.

In April 2020, College Board announced it would be launching a digital SAT test in the fall if schools didn’t reopen. The College Board then backtracked on its plans for a digital test in June, before many schools even decided they would remain closed.

According to College Board, technological challenges led to the decision to postpone that plan.

For now, no other details about the current plan have been released, though more are expected to be revealed in April. 

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (The New York Times)

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Biden To Block Trump’s Order Lifting COVID-19 Travel Ban

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  • President Trump issued an executive order Monday lifting a ban on travelers from the Schengen area of Europe, the U.K., Ireland, and Brazil. 
  • Trump said the policy will no longer be needed starting Jan. 26, when the CDC will start requiring all passengers from abroad to present proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight.
  • The move was cheered by the travel industry; however, incoming White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki warned that Biden’s administration does not intend to lift the travel restrictions. 

Trump Order End To COVID-19 Travel Ban

President Donald Trump issued an executive order Monday ending his administration’s ban on travelers from the Schengen area of Europe, the U.K., Ireland, and Brazil.

That ban was put in place last spring in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus in the U.S. In his announcement, however, Trump said the policy will no longer be needed starting Jan. 26, when new rules from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention go into effect.

Starting that day, the CDC will require all passengers from abroad to present proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight.

The recommendation to lift the ban reportedly came from Alex Azar, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. According to Trump’s proclamation, “the Secretary reports high confidence that these jurisdictions will cooperate with the United States in the implementation of CDC’s January 12, 2021, order and that tests administered there will yield accurate results.”

It’s worth noting that the ban will stay in place for travelers from Iran and China. Still, Trump’s announcement was generally cheered by members of the travel industry who have been pushing to lift the ban and require preflight testing instead. 

Biden To Block Trump’s Order

Soon after the news broke, the incoming White House press secretary for President-elect Joe Biden, Jennifer Psaki, warned that Biden would block Trump’s order.

“With the pandemic worsening, and more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel,” she wrote on Twitter.

“On the advice of our medical team, the Administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26.  In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” she added.

With that, it seems unlikely that Trump’s order will actually take effect. 

It’s also worth noting that this is one of many executive orders Trump has issued just before inauguration day.

Source: Whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions

Some of these orders could soon be overturned once Biden takes office Wednesday. Biden is also expected to roll out his own wave of executive orders in his first 10 days as president.

See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (The New York Times) (CNN)

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New COVID-19 Variant Could Become Dominant in the U.S. by March, CDC Warns

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  • The CDC warned Friday that a new highly transmissible COVID-19 variant could become the predominant variant in the United States by March.
  • The strain was first reported in the United Kingdom in December and is now in at least 10 states.
  • The CDC used a modeled trajectory to discover how quickly the variant could spread in the U.S. and said that this could threaten the country’s already overwhelmed healthcare system.

CDC Issues Warning

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Friday that the new COVID-19 variant could become the predominant variant in the United States by March.

While it is not known to be more deadly, it does spread at a higher rate, which is troubling considering the condition the U.S. is already in. Cases and deaths are already on the rise in nearly every state and globally, 2 million lives have been lost to the coronavirus. 

The variant was first reported in the United Kingdom in mid-December. It is now in 30 countries, including the U.S., where cases have been located in at least ten states. Right now, only 76 cases of this variant have been confirmed in the U.S., but experts believe that number is likely much higher and said it will increase significantly in the coming weeks. It is already a dominant strain in parts of the U.K.

Modeled trajectory shows that growth in the U.S. could be so fast that it dominates U.S. cases just three months into the new year. This could pose a huge threat to our already strained healthcare system.

Mitigating Spread of Variant

“I want to stress that we are deeply concerned that this strain is more transmissible and can accelerate outbreaks in the U.S. in the coming weeks,” said Dr. Jay Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases at the CDC told the New York Times. “We’re sounding the alarm and urging people to realize the pandemic is not over and in no way is it time to throw in the towel.”

The CDC advises that health officials use this time to limit spread and increase vaccination as much as possible in order to mitigate the impact this variant will have. Experts believe that current vaccines will protect against this strain.

“Effective public health measures, including vaccination, physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, and isolation and quarantine, will be essential,” the CDC said in their report.

“Strategic testing of persons without symptoms but at higher risk of infection, such as those exposed to SARS-CoV-2 or who have frequent unavoidable contact with the public, provides another opportunity to limit ongoing spread.”

See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (New York Times) (NBC News)

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