A piece in today’s Sunday Times:
DNA analysis firms are selling “infidelity tests” that encourage customers who suspect a partner of having an affair to collect evidence secretly — such as underwear, bedsheets or a condom — to send to a laboratory.
Overseas companies that advertise “catch a cheat” services, including those based in America and Ireland, refuse to process samples from the UK. This is because possessing someone’s “bodily material” with intent to perform DNA analysis on it without their consent is a crime under the Human Tissue Act 2004, punishable by three years in prison.
However, UK-based companies are offering infidelity tests, a Sunday Times investigation has found. The companies place the onus for obtaining consent on the customer. They are not required to have accreditation to operate in the UK.
Pauline McCormack, from the policy, ethics and life sciences research centre at Newcastle University, urged the government to “tighten up” on the industry. “This area of genetic testing is a Wild West,” she said. “If you work in a hospital and you process biological materials without consent, there’s a real possibility you could end up in prison. So why are companies being permitted to offer these tests?
“People might be doing it with consent. A couple could have a row and she says, ‘If you don’t believe me, let’s get it [the suspicious article] tested’, which would be legal.
“But there’s a contradiction, because you’re being encouraged to do it behind their back. There is a very real possibility for the system to fall down.”
Denise Syndercombe Court, professor of forensic genetics at King’s College London, said her laboratory would not test samples without proof of identity and accused the companies of “skating around” the law.
“The potential implications are very serious,” she said. “And there are far better ways of solving these problems in a relationship, like talking to each other.”
Many websites offering the services are run by British firms acting as brokers for laboratories, typically based overseas, and earn a commission. The person submitting a sample without consent, any firm handling it and the lab testing it could be liable for prosecution in the UK.
One company, AffinityDNA, based in Hove, East Sussex, runs an infidelity testing service that it describes as a “powerful tool for those wishing to have a scientific indication of whether cheating has taken place”. The firm invites customers to send in “evidence of an affair” such as underwear, used condoms, a section of stained bedsheet or “any suspicious sample you believe might have human biological material”.
It offers a £90 “semen detection test” to check on a piece of fabric and a £299 “gender” test that indicates whether a sample is from a man or a woman. The most expensive option, a comparison test costing up to £500, requires customers to post their own sample and the “suspicious” one — which they believe to be a sign of infidelity. Both samples are tested to determine whether they belong to the same person or not.
AffinityDNA carries out testing at unnamed “partner laboratories”. Its terms and conditions say it can share customers’ personal data with “third-party agents” and transmit it “across borders to other countries”. Mark Purseglove, of AffinityDNA, said its website warns customers about the Human Tissue Act. “Samples for all our tests must be submitted with signed consent forms from each participant.”
HomeDNADirect, based in Kent, has been running Google ads that appear under searches for “DNA testing without consent”. It offers analysis on condoms, cigarette butts, fingernails, strands of hair and chewing-gum. Its website states: “The most important benefit of discreet DNA testing it that it can be done in secret of the intended person.”
Customers send samples to Kent which are shipped to a US laboratory.
Kevin Camilleri, of HomeDNADirect, said it was “very strict” and did not do tests without the full consent of everybody involved. “In the end, people have to assume their own responsibility. We try and weed it out but in the end they might fake the documents,” he said.
Helen Wallace of GeneWatch, a campaign group, said the services encouraged surreptitious testing: “We need a crackdown on cowboy companies. They shouldn’t be able to offer services that are potentially unethical or unlawful.”
Genetics experts have also raised fears about what happens to the DNA samples, which can be transferred to third-party laboratories outside the UK.
Anna Middleton, head of society and research ethics at the Wellcome Genome Campus, said sensitive DNA data was “like gold”. “The cost of paying for one of these tests is nothing compared with the money they could make by selling the data on,” she said.
Websites such as Spy Equipment UK and the Garden Pharmacy, based in north London, sell DIY catch-a-cheat tests that can be ordered online and carried out at home. The companies did not respond to a request for comment.
The Checkmate “sperm detection kit”, widely sold online, costs up to £60 and is described as being “perfect for catching a cheating spouse or sexually active teenager”. It contains a solution that turns samples purple if semen is present.
The Human Tissue Authority, part of the Department of Health, said that anyone performing non-consensual DNA analysis could be breaking the law. A spokesman added that although DIY “sperm detection” kits do not involve DNA analysis, people performing them “would potentially be in breach of the act” if they have not sought consent.
Liar! Liar! Pants in the DNA lab
“The test came up positive . . . Bang to rights!” reads one online review for a “sperm detection kit”. The author had guessed his girlfriend was cheating on him after she “stopped out all night” and changed her clothes the next morning.
Rather than talking to her about his fears, he fished her dirty knickers out of the laundry basket. “I put the offending article in a sealed plastic bag, ordered the kit the same day, then carried out the test the following evening when she was at work,” he wrote. “It came up positive . . . I’m gutted.”
Another customer gave the product a five-star rating and wrote: “It certainly works. I will now be in the process of getting a divorce.”
Sarah Jane Lenihan, a partner at Stowe Family Law, first encountered infidelity tests last year and said she would not be surprised if they became more common. “Ten years ago it was private investigators. Then, at one point, lie detector tests were a popular thing which came out of the Jeremy Kyle era,” she said.
The results of a DNA test could be used to reach a settlement in divorce proceedings, with typically the cheating spouse agreeing to sign, knowing that there was evidence of their adultery.
It could also backfire. In 2007, Ann Chamberlain, a forensic scientist from Michigan, testified during divorce proceedings that she ran a DNA test on her husband’s underwear at the lab where she worked. Asked by her lawyer what she found, the 33-year-old replied: “Another female. It wasn’t me.” The divorce was granted. But the investigation — dubbed CSI: Laundry — cost Chamberlain her job.
Emma Gill, a divorce lawyer at Vardags, said such a test was open to abuse and warned that people could be forced to agree to one by controlling partners. “It’s scary to think what could happen if it’s in the wrong hands,” she said.
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