November 1, 2018 5:00 am

Government using ancestry websites to deport immigrants: lawyer, court documents

Global News explains: How your data from do-it-yourself genetic tests could be used

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The Canadian Border Services Agency is collecting the DNA of immigrants and using ancestry websites to find long-lost family members in order to establish nationalities.

“CBSA has said that they are using genetic profiling and uploading that information to websites to assist in their investigations for deportation,” Toronto immigration lawyer David Cote told Global News.

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Cote says he is aware of several cases in which the federal agency has utilized ancestry websites to assist in their cases. Court documents obtained by Global News shows a CBSA representative admitting to using familytreedna.com to contact the long-lost cousins of Franklin Godwin, who was accepted as a refugee from Liberia and was granted permanent residency in 1996.

“One of the means they decided to use was to take a genetic sample from Mr. Godwin and to upload it onto a website to see if they would be able to match him with anybody,” Cote says.

“Doing that, they were hoping to be able to find where he was from. The idea being that if we were able to find family members, those family members would then be a link to another country,” Cote added.

Cote is representing Godwin through CLASP, a legal aid clinic at Osgoode Hall Law School. Godwin was convicted of drug offences in the ’90s and served a seven-year prison sentence in Canada. He was charged with importing and conspiring to import heroin and his permanent residency status was revoked. The CBSA then deemed him a threat and tried to deport him to Liberia several times but the Liberian government refused to take him.

When Godwin was in immigration detention, the CBSA said they took his DNA sample under his consent. The agency now claims Godwin is a Nigerian national and have focused their efforts in deporting him there. However, Cote says Godwin was left in the dark and was not told how his DNA sample would be used.

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Court documents show that two long-lost cousins from the U.K. had been contacted by the CBSA, unaware that they would become part of a huge deportation case.

“They contact those persons to say, ‘We have somebody who is in detention here,’ and ask them for more information about their family member,” says Cote.

But the approach is flawed, Cote added.

“It’s really difficult to say where somebody is from simply based on genetic profile. But secondly, obviously it doesn’t prove that you are a national of that place.”

“That information could be used to send somebody back to a country that could be dangerous for them.”

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The CBSA refused an interview but instead provided a written email statement:

“The CBSA has confirmed that in the past we have used DNA testing in an effort to confirm an individual’s identity. DNA testing was used when other avenues had been exhausted, and with the consent from the clients before proceeding.”

Asked whether they have used this method in other investigations, the CBSA did not provide an answer. Cote claims that the CBSA also did not provide the results of Godwin’s DNA test.

When asked if familytreedna.com was aware that their website was being used by the CBSA, the company said they have never worked with the Canadian government, and that using data in that way would violate their terms of service.

This deportation case is still being fought in court but it raises many legal and privacy concerns. Many people who are uploading their DNA to ancestry websites to find family should be aware that there is the chance that a government official may contact them, Cote says.

“Out of the blue one day, you’ll get a call, perhaps from the government of Canada or governments around the world, saying that this person is related to you, they are in immigration detention in country x, we want to deport them to the country you are from, we need you now to provide further information about your family members, who they are and what country they originally came from,” Cote says.

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As interest in “do-it-yourself” DNA tests has exploded in recent years, experts say it’s important that you’re aware of the privacy concerns.

“We don’t know all of the things that genetic testing information could tell us in the future, or different ways it can be used. I’m sure there are ways it will be used in the future that we haven’t thought of yet,” Katie Hasson says, who is the program director on Genetic Justice at the Center for Genetics and Society.

“It makes it hard to make a truly informed decision about whether it’s safe or whether you are comfortable of taking the risk of having that information out there,” she added.

Hasson says you should remember that DNA data is unique to you, and unlike credit card numbers, that information can never be changed.

“I think it’s important to have regulations protecting consumers and regulations so consumers will know who has access to their data and under what circumstances and there could be accountability the way this data is used and passed around.”

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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