The transformation of genetic genealogy from a geeky pastime to a crime-fighting business opportunity has taken another leap forward.
Verogen, a San Diego-based company that provides equipment for high-tech sequencing of crime-scene DNA, today announced that it had acquired GEDmatch, a website that rose to fame after it led cops to the alleged Golden State Killer.
Since then, GEDmatch has been caught in the crossfire of a bitter argument between genealogists who believe the site has compromised its users’ privacy and those who want to work with law enforcement to help solve violent crimes.
“They have been pummelled by all sides,” said Margaret Press, co-founder of the DNA Doe Project, which uses genetic genealogy to put names to unidentified homicide victims.
Although GEDmatch’s new owner is a forensic science company, it is promising a firm line on protecting users who don’t want cops to access their genetic information. “We are very committed to privacy,” Verogen CEO Brett Williams told BuzzFeed News.
Launched by genealogy enthusiasts Curtis Rogers and John Olson in 2010, for years GEDmatch was an obscure website that allowed customers of DNA testing firms to expand their family trees by looking for relatives sharing matching stretches of DNA.
That all changed in April 2018 with the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, a former cop alleged to be the Golden State Killer, responsible for at least 13 murders and more than 50 rapes in California in the 1970s and 1980s.
Police in California and the FBI, working with a professional genealogist, Barbara Rae Venter, matched a crime-scene DNA sample to profiles in GEDmatch who were the killer’s third or fourth cousins.
Since then, GEDmatch has been used to help solve around 70 violent crimes. But the site’s new prominence as a crime-fighting tool has divided genealogists keen to work with law enforcement and those concerned that the practice has invaded users’ genetic privacy.
In May, there was an outcry from privacy advocates after Rogers allowed the site to be used to identify the perpetrator of a violent assault in Utah — bending rules put in place that were supposed to restrict cops to investigating homicides and sexual assaults.
Rogers and Olson responded by changing GEDmatch’s terms and conditions to require customers to explicitly opt-in for searching by law enforcement. The change drastically reduced the number of users who made their genetic information available for use by law enforcement, frustrating police and genealogists working with them.
Last month, the pendulum swung again when the New York Times reported that a Florida detective had obtained a warrant to search the entirety of GEDmatch — including the profiles of users who had not opted in for law enforcement searches.
GEDmatch quickly complied. But in a press release announcing its acquisition of the site, Verogen CEO Brett Williams indicated that his company would take a tougher line in future: “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.”
“You take each case on its merits,” Williams told BuzzFeed News. “But at the end of the day it’s important to have agreed terms of service.”
Verogen plans to make money by offering tools for DNA analysis and access to GEDmatch’s database. But Williams said it didn’t initially intend to employ its own genealogists — unlike Parabon NanoLabs, which has solved dozens of criminal cases, and Family Tree DNA, which hired Venter of the Golden State Killer team.
Rogers, who will remain involved with GEDmatch, did not immediately respond to queries from BuzzFeed News about the decision to sell up. But other genealogists say that they were not surprised that he and Olson decided it was time to relinquish control.
“I think that they’re too small and they’re tired of dealing with all of the hassle,” said Leah Larkin, a genealogist in Livermore, California. Larkin led the complaints that GEDmatch was sliding down a “slippery slope” after it allowed the investigation of the Utah assault.
The challenge for Verogen will be to convince users that a forensic science company will provide a useful service for genealogy enthusiasts while also serving law enforcement.
“It’s a delicate balance if they want to conserve this resource,” said Press.
Williams, Verogen’s CEO, said that the number of users who have opted in for law enforcement searches now stands at more than 200,000, and is growing.
“We’re not going to force people to opt in,” Williams said. “If I try that, I know I’ll undermine everything.”