Forensics Genomics Firm Verogen to Use DNA Database for Crime IDs

In the never-ending effort to balance between good policing and police over reaching their legal limits, a new situation has come up that should alert privacy advocates. reports a somewhat frightening story, most especially for people guilty of a crime. But is finding the guilty mean we have to sacrifice our private DNA data? As WIRED reports:

“Just two years ago, GEDmatch was still an obscure genealogy website, known only to a million or so hobbyist DNA sleuths looking to fill in their family trees. The site was free, public, and run by two guys with a knack for writing algorithms that helped relatives find each other. All in all, it was a pretty controversy-free place.”

That all changed in April of 2018, when news broke that police had used GEDmatch to identify a suspect in the 40-year-old Golden State Killer case. As the site emerged as a crime-fighting tool, some users and privacy experts began to worry about how people’s genetic data might ensnare them in criminal investigations, when all they wanted was to learn about was their family history.

The transition has been tough for GEDmatch, which has dealt with one issue after another: Police searches have grown increasingly invasive; the site’s owners tried to react with changes to its terms of service that ended up backfiring; and white-hat hackers pointed out glaring security flaws. Starting Monday, however, it’s another company’s problem.

GEDmatch announced its sale to a new owner, the forensic genomics firm Verogen. The San Diego-based company, spun off from sequencing giant Illumina two years ago, specializes in next-generation DNA testing services catering to law enforcement. With the acquisition of GEDmatch, Verogen may also start offering genealogy searches like the ones that have identified suspects in as many as 70 cases.

“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,” Verogen CEO Brett Williams said in a statement announcing the deal. The terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

While some may call the acquisition another tool to enable police to solve crimes, most of the DNA available for review has no connection to criminals. But it will be kept in a legal systems database without the knowledge of those who willingly provided it.

Reactions have been mixed, according to the WIRED story.

“I suspect this will be the last straw for all the genealogists who don’t want to share with law enforcement,” Debbie Kennett, a genealogist and honorary research associate at University College London, told WIRED. On Monday GEDmatch updated its terms of service to reflect the new ownership, but it did not alert users via email. Kennett found out from a Facebook group discussion. When she tried to log into GEDmatch, she discovered she was locked out until she accepted the new terms. (Additional options included deciding later and permanently deleting all her data from the GEDmatch servers.)

The article explains some of the problems GEDmatch experienced with hackers, and how some in the scientific community are very much against this kind of merger of genealogy and the justice system.

While some communities across the country have passed laws to restrain facial recognition software, the trend seems to be moving forward for using the newest technology that civilians have developed to enforce invasive police powers.