Canadian Immigration Officials Use DNA Websites To Identify Migrants

A woman carries a child out of a makeshift police station after crossing illegally into Canada.
Charles Krupa / AP Images

According to the Canada Border Services agency, immigration officials have been using DNA genealogical sites to help identify the nationalities of migrants “when other avenues of investigation have been exhausted,” as reported by The Guardian.

The story was first reported by Vice News after two immigration lawyers revealed that the nationality of some of their clients had been identified through DNA tests submitted to website Family Tree DNA.

A spokesperson from the CBSA explained the use of DNA websites as a tool for ascertaining a person’s identity.

“DNA testing assists the CBSA in determining identity by providing indicators of nationality thereby enabling us to focus further lines of investigation on particular countries,” The Guardian cites.

The agency affirmed that migrants were giving their consent to having their information submitted to the sites but declined to provide further information about their investigative techniques.

Immigrants attempt to cross Canadian border.
  Craig Ruttle / AP Images

The issue was initially reported to news outlets earlier this year by lawyer Subodh Bharati, whose Liberian client had been living in Canada since the 1990s, but was flagged as Nigerian by authorities citing DNA ancestry sites. Bharati’s concern was that his client had given consent to the test while detained in a maximum security prison, which may have swayed his decision to be cooperative.

Bharati further commented that Canadian immigration officials were advocating that his client be deported to Nigeria, an argument that he felt was at odds with the fact that ancestry doesn’t necessarily equal nationality.

“My DNA would say that I’m from India but I was born in Canada. It’s so obvious that this can’t give anybody’s nationality, is there some other reason that they’re collecting DNA? I don’t know,” he stated at the time, according to The Guardian article.

Critics have condemned the CBSA’s practices, referring to the system as a “legal black hole.” The agency has the authority to detain non-citizens whose identities cannot be confirmed, but the confidentiality of the people’s information has been called into question. The agency has also been suspect to a lack of transparency and oversight surrounding the situation.

Family Tree DNA denied working with Canadian law enforcement and told Reuters that it had “no knowledge of Canadian law enforcement or its border agency using the FTDNA platform for the purpose of gathering migrant DNA to determine nationality.”

This is not the first case of law enforcement using data from ancestry websites in their work. Earlier this year, investigators in California tracked down the man suspected of being the Golden State Killer using DNA gathered by ancestry websites.