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Big changes in the wind at FTDNA, GEDmatch

There have been two major developments in the DNA world this week — a change in ownership at Family Tree DNA and a change in direction at GEDmatch.

And exactly what either change will mean for the typical DNA customer…

Well, The Legal Genealogist is taking no bets.

winds of change

As with everything else here in early 2021 — remember back a million years ago (that is, last week…) when the new year looked promising and hopeful??? — when the winds of change are blowing this hard, we need to hunker down and keep our eyes open.

The FTDNA ownership change

The ownership change at Family Tree DNA was announced Thursday, January 7, in a press release from Melbourne, Australia, that began: “Dr. Lior Rauchberger, CEO of leading Australian genomics company, myDNA, announced a merger with the U.S., Houston-based consumer DNA test company, FamilyTreeDNA, and its parent company, Gene by Gene. Dr. Rauchberger will step into the role of CEO of the merged companies, effective immediately. Gene by Gene co-founders Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld will join the Board of Directors.”1

Then Friday, in an email to FTDNA group project administrators, FTDNA’s Greenspan and Blankfeld wrote:

“Like every small business in the country, the past year has given us pause. We were faced with the tremendous challenge of not only finding ways for the business to survive the pandemic, but simultaneously, making FamilyTreeDNA stronger, more resilient, and ensuring its promising future. A future full of growth not only for ourselves but for the hundreds of employees who rely on our business and the millions of customers around the world who look to us to deliver pioneering advancements in consumer genetics and genealogy.

After many months of consideration, we are delighted to report that FamilyTreeDNA and its parent company, Gene by Gene, have merged with myDNA, a leading Australia-based genomics company whose outstanding reputation, innovative vision, and pioneering genomics technology will allow the company to expand its product offerings.

Most important to us in evaluating this merger’s suitability is our shared principle of DNA privacy protections and ownership. myDNA will retain the existing privacy policy and terms of service.

Our customers can expect a seamless transition as our new CEO, Dr. Lior Rauchberger, a respected physician and leader at the intersection of science and technology, takes FamilyTreeDNA and Gene by Gene into an exciting future filled with innovative life-changing advancements while continuing to invest further in FamilyTreeDNA’s genealogy products and service offerings.”2

Little is known in the genealogical community about the Australian myDNA company. Its website states:

“myDNA is an international genetics company with headquarters in Melbourne, Australia, that decodes the information in our genes to help you live better.

myDNA was founded on the belief that healthcare can be improved. We believe that personalised advice can transform lives for the better.

Our reports are developed by a team of specialists with expertise in clinical and molecular genetics, nutrition, pharmacy, genetic counselling, sports dietetics and general practice.

Your personalised test results have lifelong relevance and can help provide a blueprint for managing your health.”3

So its emphasis is on health and wellness. It appears to have no experience with genealogical applications. So what its plans are for growth and expansion of genealogical offerings remains to be seen.

That health and wellness background may contribute to a shift in emphasis when it comes to privacy, however. FTDNA became embroiled in a privacy debate when allowed law enforcement use of its database without informing users, and then forced most users to opt out of law enforcement use of their DNA data, rather than adopting an opt-in system.4 Its new owner’s privacy policy begins with the statement that: “Your DNA sample and data remain your property, are stored on secure encrypted services, can be destroyed anytime at your request, and will never be shared without your consent.5

Whether that means an opt-in system will be adopted at FTDNA for the future, rather than the current opt-out system, also remains to be seen.

The GEDmatch TOS change

At GEDmatch, the week brought an announcement of new terms of service, and, among them, what appears to be an unequivocal division between the genealogical consumer-based GEDmatch platform and the new GEDmatch Pro platform for forensic and law enforcement use.

GEDmatch, you will recall, was the genealogical database engulfed in a privacy firestorm after it was disclosed that user data had been accessed by law enforcement for investigations without user consent.6 Ultimately, GEDmatch was acquired by Verogen, a firm providing support for forensic investigations.7 Concern over the forensic emphasis of GEDmatch led many users to deactivate their accounts, and in the end only about 10% of users ever agreed to law enforcement access to their data.

The GEDmatch Pro database was developed in 2020 as a “dedicated portal for forensic use of GEDmatch,” according to a Verogen representative, who explained: “Differentiating GEDmatch PRO from GEDmatch allows us to meet the unique requirements of law enforcement while preserving the primary purpose of GEDmatch: enabling users to learn more about their roots.” The company representative also said that Verogen would “move law enforcement kits and accounts from GEDmatch to GEDmatch PRO” but said nothing about other kits, even those that allowed law enforcement access.8

The terms no longer permit uploading to the base GEDmatch site of “DNA obtained and authorized by law enforcement to identify a perpetrator of a violent crime against another individual, where ‘violent crime’ is defined as murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, aggravated rape, robbery, or aggravated assault ; DNA obtained and authorized by law enforcement to identify remains of a deceased individual; (or) An artificial DNA kit (if and only if: (1) it is intended for research purposes; and (2) it is not used to identify anyone in the GEDmatch database)…” — all of which were allowed under the terms of service now being replaced.9

However, the new terms still provide for four categories of privacy, including one that permits law enforcement access.10

And the terms of service at the new GEDmatch Pro seem to be limited to law enforcement users only: “You will only use the Services for law enforcement use to identify the perpetrator of a violent crime (where ‘violent crime’ is defined as murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, aggravated rape, robbery, or aggravated assault) or to identify human remains, and only in a manner that complies with all laws that apply to you. If your use of the Services is prohibited by applicable laws, then you aren’t authorized to use the Services. We can’t and won’t be responsible for your using the Services in a way that breaks the law.”11

The result is that it isn’t at all clear just whose DNA data the law enforcement kits will be compared to: there’s no information clarifying who the people are whose DNA will be used, or available to be used, to identify the law enforcement suspects.

The bottom line

So we have a lot of changes this week — and very little information about just what those changes will mean for genealogists.

And so 2021 goes … as the winds of change keep blowing.


Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “DNA winds of change,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 10 Jan 2021).

SOURCES

  1. Pharmacogenetic and Genealogy Pioneers Merge for Historic Partnership,” PRNewswire, 7 Jan 2021 (https://www.prnewswire.com/ : accessed 10 Jan 2021).
  2. Email, 8 Jan 2021, FTDNA to Project Administrators.
  3. About myDNA,” myDNA.life (https://www.mydna.life/ : accessed 10 Jan 2021).
  4. See generally Judy G. Russell, “Opening the DNA floodgates,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 1 Feb 2019 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 10 Jan 2021). And see “One little change,” posted 3 Feb 2019, and “The logical fallacy,” posted 4 Feb 2019.
  5. Privacy Policy,” myDNA.life (https://www.mydna.life/ : accessed 10 Jan 2021).
  6. See generally Judy G. Russell, “Withdrawing a recommendation,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 15 May 2019 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 10 Jan 2021).
  7. See ibid., “GEDmatch acquired by forensic firm,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 10 Dec 2019.
  8. See Swathi S. Kumar, “GEDmatch: a Platform for Data Driven Forensic Intelligence,” The ISHI Report, posted November 2020 (https://promega.foleon.com/theishireport/ : accessed 10 Jan 2021).

    What isn’t yet known is what incentives Verogen intends to offer consumer genealogists who now use the GEDmatch platform to allow their data to be used in the GEDmatch Pro forensic platform, or what access GEDmatch Pro law enforcement users will have to data in the basic GEDmatch platform. The new terms of service at GEDmatch, which take effect tomorrow, 11 January 2021, provide expressly that: “If you are a law enforcement officer or if you are working on behalf of a law enforcement officer, you agree you will not upload Raw Data to GEDmatch via the GEDmatch.com website; instead, … upload Raw Data via the GEDmatch Pro portal to identify the perpetrator of a Violent Crime (where ‘Violent Crime’ is defined as murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, aggravated rape, robbery, or aggravated assault) or to identify human remains.”[9. “GEDmatch.Com Terms of Service and Privacy Policy, Effective Date January 11, 2021,” GEDmatch.com (https://www.gedmatch.com/ : accessed 10 Jan 2021).

  9. See “GEDmatch.Com Terms of Service and Privacy Policy, Revised December 9, 2019,” GEDmatch.com (https://www.gedmatch.com/ : accessed 10 Jan 2021).
  10. GEDmatch.Com Terms of Service and Privacy Policy, Effective Date January 11, 2021,” GEDmatch.com (https://www.gedmatch.com/ : accessed 10 Jan 2021).
  11. Terms of Use, Effective date: December 14, 2020,” GEDmatch Pro (https://pro.gedmatch.com/ : accessed 10 Jan 2021).
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