I've done a lot of thinking this week, ever since the news broke on Monday about genetic genealogy database service GEDmatch.com being acquired by Verogen, Inc. Verogen, supplying their global customer base with high tech products designed to deliver "biometric based human identification," hopes to engage the GEDmatch support base in a "conversation" about how they will "enable the operational forensic laboratory" to participate in these new developments in genetics.
To dispel any alarm among those in their newly acquired customer base, Verogen spokespersons have been quick to assure GEDmatch, as an NBC report headline read the next day, of their "vows to fight police search warrants"—the very issue rankling privacy rights advocates among current (and now former) GEDmatch users.
But what need is there to "fight police search warrants" for a company designed specifically to serve forensic labs? After all, according to their own website, Verogen is "uniquely positioned to support forensic labs." They seek to "unlock the true potential of forensic genomics."
True, privacy comes in more forms than just one. Early yesterday morning, on their official Facebook page, the new GEDmatch discussed the issue of users reporting previous matches now missing from their accounts. The new GEDmatch response:
We are obligated to adhere to the various privacy policies in force in the different countries where GEDmatch users reside. As such, data of certain users who have not yet granted permission for their information to be transferred to Verogen is not visible on the site at this time. As they grant permission, these matches will be restored.
That, perhaps, includes all the GEDmatch users who have not yet signed in to the site to indicate their response to the updated terms of service. And that may leave me, as well, as one of those invisible participants, as I have not yet decided whether the tools afforded by this website are now worth the cost to play this new game.
Much appreciated, in this week of pondering such news, is the analysis provided by The DNA Geek, Leah Larkin, Ph.D. She first reminds us that Verogen is a company which "focuses specifically on machinery and lab supplies for law enforcement" and is a bio-tech company which was a recent spin-off from Illumina.
While Dr. Larkin is "cautiously optimistic" about how the new owners of GEDmatch will respect user consents regarding their private data, she is not blind to the potential for a new and improved GEDmatch to be seen as "quite the cash cow" for Verogen. And she has publicly stated that she has deleted her own DNA records from the website, as of last May.
And here we were, concerned about how the response to one overly-broad search warrant granted law enforcement access to go riffling through the raw data representing over one million DNA profiles already uploaded to the site. Who's watching this hen house now?