Saturday, December 14, 2019

Fox? Hen House? Wait!

I've done a lot of thinking this week, ever since the news broke on Monday about genetic genealogy database service 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?   


  1. Wow. I really appreciate this post. I recently joined GEDmatch thinking it may come in handy someday when I better understand how to use it. But I didn't know about this acquisition - not that any corporation is likely to resist pressure from law-enforcement agencies. And many of us "who have nothing to hide" no longer trust government agencies.

    For some time I have been asking my husband to do a DNA test so that I can better research his family. He had resisted, even while acknowledging that he is not anonymous because so many of his close relatives have done the tests. But he resists on principle precisely because of scenarios such as you have described here. And even well-intentioned agencies can make mistakes. One time a few years back some policemen showed up at our door with insistent questions that seemed to accuse him of beating up a woman in a parking lot. Before we all figured out that the policemen had come to the wrong address, we were bewildered and felt powerless. That is the feeling he never wants to experience again.

    1. That is something to really think about, Lisa. What an experience! I can see why someone would never want to find himself in that situation again. The recent changes have made a lot of people want to think twice before jumping into the DNA arena, which is unfortunate for those of us who only envisioned its use for genealogical purposes.

    2. What do you think of canceling out from GEDmatch altogether? I guess that wouldn't matter much, if they already have one's information stored. It makes me feel like a criminal or conspiratorialist just thinking about how "biometric human identification" could be used against us.

      In addition to the fox and the hen house, another aphorism comes to mind: the horse and the barn.

    3. Lisa, I have yet to read the new Terms of Service--and you can be sure, when I do, I'll be setting aside enough time for some serious reading--but it is my understanding that any user can opt to remove their raw data from the site.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...