DNA database bought by genomics firm linked to law enforcement
No, the calendar hasn’t suddenly stopped — or advanced. No, it’s not Sunday, when DNA is the usual topic around The Legal Genealogist.
It’s just that there’s major news on the GEDmatch front, and it ought not wait to be reported: the third-party tools site GEDmatch — the one in the forefront of the controversy over the use of genealogical databases by law enforcement — has been acquired by a forensic genomics firm that serves the law enforcement community.
The buyer: the San Diego-based forensic genomics firm Verogen, a firm that highlights its “role in preserving public safety”1 and offers to help its customers “overcome limitations and solve more cases.”2
The announcement of the acquisition came yesterday in a Verogen press release:
GEDmatch, a pioneer in consumer genealogy, today announced that it has joined with forensic genomics firm Verogen, Inc. in a move that allows the company to ensure ongoing privacy protections and enhance the customer experience for users of its website.
“I am confident that we have found an ideal partner for GEDmatch,” said founder Curtis Rogers. “Verogen understands our philosophy and shares the vision of GEDmatch, which has always been about using science to connect people,” Rogers said. “Verogen is able to support our growth while staying true to our roots.”
GEDmatch allows users to upload genetic profiles created by other genealogy sites in order to expand the search for familial links. GEDmatch’s database currently has more than 1.3 million customer profiles and is gaining as many as 1,000 new users every day.
In the coming months, GEDmatch users will begin to see improvements to the website, such as an enhanced homepage that offers increased functionality, Verogen CEO Brett Williams said. Verogen will also bolster the GEDmatch platform, resulting in increased stability and optimal searchability. These back-end changes won’t disrupt the experience for users and, in fact, will make searching the database easier, Williams said.
GEDmatch’s terms of service will not change, with respect to the use, purposes of processing, and disclosures of user data, Williams confirmed. The website gives users a choice to opt-in to allow law enforcement to search uploaded files as a tool to solve violent crimes. Among the successes of this technology is work by public safety officials who used GEDMatch to apprehend accused Golden State Killer Joseph DeAngelo, a notorious serial killer who terrorized California and evaded police for decades until his arrest in 2018.
As many as 70 violent crimes have been solved as a result of genealogy searches. “Never before have we as a society had the opportunity to serve as a molecular eyewitness, enabling law enforcement to solve violent crimes efficiently and with certainty,” Williams said.
“Still, our users have the absolute right to choose whether they want to share their information with law enforcement by opting in,” Williams said. “We are steadfast in our commitment to protecting users’ privacy and will fight any future attempts to access data of those who have not opted in.”
Added Rogers: “Our number one priority is our customers. We are and always have been a genealogy site whose goal is to help people find answers they’re looking for about themselves and their families. As we grow, we want to enhance the customer experience by making the site more user-friendly and by ensuring data is protected. Verogen can help us do that.”
Under terms of the deal, Rogers will retain a key role focused on the primary mission of GEDmatch, which is to provide tools to help amateur and professional researchers and genealogists.
Despite the use of the term “partnership” in the press release, this is clearly a buy-out of the database. As the screenshot above shows, the GEDmatch website itself now states: “As of December 9, 2019, GEDmatch is operated by Verogen, Inc. (‘Verogen’) following the acquisition by Verogen of the GEDmatch website.”4
GEDmatch users had no advance notice that an acquisition was in the winds, and were not notified by email. The buy-out came to light only when users trying to log in to the site were presented with a new set of terms and conditions and a take-it-or-leave choice: “agree to all terms (and) accept all provisions described in GEDmatch Terms of Service” or “delete (their) GEDmatch registration and remove all data from GEDmatch servers that (they) may have uploaded to the site.”5 Users may delay making a decision, but, if that’s the what you want to do now, “You will not be allowed to enter the site until you have accepted the Terms of Service.”6
Verogen CEO Brett Williams said in an email exchange that any user who manages multiple kits may accept the terms of service and then pick and choose which if any kits to keep on the website.7 In response to questions, he explained that no data associated with a deleted kit will be retained by Verogen: “If a user doesn’t accept the new Terms of Service then the user profile, associated DNA and match data is deleted from the system. Similarly for the case where the user accepts the terms service and then decides to delete some kits, the information will be deleted from the system.”8 He further stated that no backup files that might exist would be accessed or available to be accessed “for deleted kits that may be in an archive for a short period of time following deletion of a kit.”9
Users in the European Union whose data privacy is protected by the more rigorous General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in effect there must separately agree to the transfer of their data from GEDmatch to Verogen. Their kits will not be available for matching with other users until that authorization is given. Any GDPR-impacted kit for which such authorization is not given in one year will be deleted permanently from GEDmatch.10
The sale of the database shouldn’t come as a surprise. GEDmatch has been at the center of controversy since May of 2018 when it was disclosed that its database had been used by police to identify a suspect in the Golden State Killer case in California. Its efforts to minimize the damage in user confidence through multiple changes in the terms of service — even to the point of making users specifically opt in to police access to their data — didn’t do much to assuage user privacy concerns, and the issuance of a search warrant by a Florida court last month impacting site users who hadn’t opted in to the use of their data for criminal investigations didn’t help either.
And the sale of the database to a firm serving law enforcement shouldn’t come as a surprise, either, in light of the siteowners’ strong public position in favor of police access to their users’ data.
The big issue is what real purpose GEDmatch will serve going forward. On one hand, new capital from Verogen could greatly improve the genealogical tools, and the new owners are responding to user questions with all the right words about family history (“Verogen is committed to (seeing that) GEDMatch … continues to be a thriving community for genetic genealogists”). And through its press release, Verogen is using all the right words about protecting privacy (“We are steadfast in our commitment to protecting users’ privacy and will fight any future attempts to access data of those who have not opted in”).
On the other hand, for-profit companies are not charities. They do not buy databases unless those purchases serve their needs — and the needs of Verogen focus on its core business of serving the law enforcement community. This is underscored by Verogen’s email to its customer base: “Today, Verogen announced its acquisition of GEDmatch, an online genetic genealogy service that has been central to law enforcement solving over 70 cold cases in the U.S.” That core business may take the site even further away from its genealogical origins and drive it to become basically a competitor to the soon-to-be-launched DNAsolves.com database, a venture by Othram, a Verogen competitor in providing forensic lab services to law enforcement.
So we’re just going to have to wait and see how much GEDmatch continues to serve any genealogical functions now that it’s a Verogen property, or whether the once-genealogical database will serve more as an entry way for police access to user data for criminal investigations. In other words, whether genealogists are users… or product.
The next few months should prove verrrrrrry interesting.
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “GEDmatch acquired by forensic firm,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 10 Dec 2019).
- “About : Company,” Verogen.com (https://verogen.com/ : accessed 9 Dec 2019). ↩
- See tagline at bottom of every web page, Verogen.com. ↩
- See “GEDmatch Partners with Genomics Firm,” About : News, Verogen.com (https://verogen.com/ : accessed 9 Dec 2019). ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Brett Williams to Judy G. Russell, email, 9 Dec 2019. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- See Debbie Kennett, “GEDmatch has been acquired by the forensic genomics company Verogen,” Cruwys News, posted 9 Dec 2019 (https://cruwys.blogspot.com/ : accessed 9 Dec 2019). ↩