GEDmatch Sells

As of December 9, 2019, GEDmatch is operated by Verogen, Inc. (“Verogen”) following the acquisition by Verogen of the GEDmatch website.

This is the first line of the new Terms of Service at GEDmatch, the third-party DNA site long beloved by genealogists until recent controversies hit.  The hubbub stems from the use of the database by law enforcement without the explicit consent of its users.  GEDmatch has been hit by a series of faith-quaking episodes over the past year and a half, from the initial Golden State Killer case to violations of their Terms of Service to ready compliance with an overly-broad search warrant.

It’s not surprising that the owners of GEDmatch decided to sell in the wake these episodes.  I had hoped a genealogy company like MyHeritage would buy them, but t’was not to be.  Instead, GEDmatch sold to a company called Verogen.  So we must ask ourselves …

 

Who Is Verogen? And Can They Be Trusted?

I guess we’re going to find out.  Verogen is now in possession of the genomic profiles of 1.4 million people, most of whom have no idea that Verogen is in possession of their genomes.  How they handle the coming months will be telling.

Verogen is a biotech company that was spun off in 2017 from Illumina, a leading manufacturer of lab equipment for DNA analysis.  Verogen focuses specifically on machinery and lab supplies for law enforcement.  They have no known experience in genealogy or even in investigative work.  (Remember, they sell equipment, not research services.)

On one hand, that’s concerning.  They’re not in the business of genealogy, and our interests aren’t their interests.  On the other, the principals should have sufficient ties to the academic world to understand informed consent, the foundation of all scientific research involving human subjects.  And there’s reason to believe they might take that obligation seriously.

First, the press release from Verogen says the acquisition “allows the company to ensure ongoing privacy protections”.  Additionally, the CEO, Brett Williams said “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.”  In other words, they are promising to resist warrants on the database.

And in an interview with Buzzfeed News, Williams said “You take each case on its merits, but at the end of the day it’s important to have agreed terms of service.”  In the same interview, he also said “We’re not going to force people to opt in. If I try that, I know I’ll undermine everything.”

All of this leaves me cautiously optimistic that Verogen will treat user data with respect and not allow it to be used for any purpose without consent.  Whether they provide the requisite educational material to ensure informed consent remains to be seen.

 

What’s in It for Verogen?

My guess is that Verogen just shelled out seven—possibly eight—figures to acquire GEDmatch.  They’re not a charity, and neither is GEDmatch, so they must be expecting a return on that investment.

Why do I think GEDmatch was worth millions?  In October 2018, the New York Times said GEDmatch had about 6,500 Tier 1 subscribers.  At $10/month, that would work out to $780,000 per year.  Wikipedia pegged them at 7,300 subscribers, or $876,000 annually.  Subtract the annual server costs of $200,000, and you still have a nice haul, with an outdated interface and no advertising.

Layer onto that a possible increase in subscriptions from upgrading the site, potential fees for law enforcement uploads, and other uses of 1.4 million genomic profiles, and GEDmatch 2.0 could be quite the cash cow.

Buzzfeed reports that “Verogen plans to make money by offering tools for DNA analysis and access to GEDmatch’s database.”  They aren’t planning to start up their own forensics division, at least not in the immediate future.  

Truthfully, I don’t know what to make of all this.  Then again, I don’t have a horse in the race.  I don’t do forensic work, and I deleted all of my own kits from GEDmatch back in May.  It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out.

 

24 thoughts on “GEDmatch Sells”

  1. I also deleted my kits from GEDmatch last spring. The direct-to-consumer DNA business is undergoing tremendous change with privacy issues and slowing demand; it will be very interesting to see how Verogen does.

  2. I note that EU users have an additional GDPR form to allow the transfer of data from GEDMatch to Verogen. The 3 options are :-
    1. Allow transfer to Verogen
    2. Do not allow and delete kit
    3. Decide later, but before 9th Dec 2020, or the kit will be deleted

    Continued use of GEDMatch/Verogen requires option 1) to be selected.

    “The website GEDmatch.com has been acquired by Verogen, Inc. Since your account has been associated with a European Union member state, GDPR regulations require authorization from the kit donor before the previous owners of GEDmatch.com can release DNA data for inclusion on the GEDmatch.com site operated by Verogen. You will gain immediate access to your kit’s one-to-one matches after you indicate your authorization in the form below. You will not need to upload your raw DNA file again, and you will be able to keep your same kit number. One-to-many matches will require reprocessing, which generally takes about 24 hours. It may take longer during the initial surge. After you have indicated your preference(s) below, click this button to continue on to your GEDmatch.com home page. Your kits and the associated match results will NOT be available to you, other users, or Verogen until you have indicated your approval in the green column below. Kits listed below that have not been approved by 9 December, 2020, will be permanently deleted.”

  3. You’re right. MyHeritage missed their chance. It’s too bad because I think GEDmatch’s method of matching data from different companies which does not use imputation is superior to MyHeritage’s and the latter could have benefited by converting to it.

  4. For Canada , does kits listed below that have not been approved by 9 December, 2020, will be permanently deleted.
    Thanks

    1. I think that rule only applies to people they can identify as being from the EU. Those people get a special notice that the rest of us don’t see.

    1. GEDmatch is a business, and businesses sometimes sell. I think part of the outrage over this event is that so many people forgot they were a for-profit company.

  5. Verogen’s reason for existence is to provide instruments and reagents to the Forensics field. It is not too hard to divine why they were interested in buying Gedmatch. They probably initiated negotiations as soon as the GSK solution came to light. I am sure that is why Gedmatch begged people in their web site headers to opt-in to law enforcement matching, to prop up the purchase price for their company. STR testing remains the validated standard in forensic analysis and one of the reasons SNP testing has not displaced it is the size of the CODIS database. Well having Gedmatch as a foundation gives Verogen a huge step toward making sequence based analysis the gold standard, especially since the informational content of a megabase or more of sequence information at poymorphic sites is so vastly greater than 13 STRs that cases have been solved when there where many degrees of familial relationship difference between the analyte and the comparator. As we have seen in the GSK case. I suspect they will find way to use the full database for “research” even while they continue to coax new and old contributors to allow explicit law enforcement association of their name and sample. And of course will “honor” any search warrant that comes along. They sure aren’t doing this for the benefit of genealogy hobbyists.

  6. I can definitely see your side too.
    I purchased my DNA kits after the risk was known, and am
    still Tier 1. It is frustrating though, that like with Boeing, profit
    is the basis for almost all decisions. To wish for something
    more Chivalrous is not being very realistic.
    At FTDNA, there have been basically no new matches, (auto or YDNA)
    for months now. These companies may have made these decisions
    for profit, but might have really shot themselves in the foot instead.
    Creating a format that is law-enforcement friendly, will not improve
    their operating environment for people who are genealogy oriented,
    and those people, and the future expansion of their database is their
    bread and butter.
    Take Care, and thank you for the comment.
    Randolph

  7. Having just read their TOS (you can’t get past the log in page until you agree), I am inclined to delete my files from GEDmatch. There is nothing in the TOS saying they will resist law enforcement subpoenas. In fact, it says it will hand over our data if required by law. Am I jumping the gun? Or should I delete my data?

    1. Verogen has said in press interviews that they will resist warrants. That said, they’re a complete unknown and we simply don’t know what they’ll do. I emailed them suggesting they implement an informed consent policy that explains the pros and cons to users rather than just pressuring them to join, but I haven’t heard back. I can’t advice on whether to keep or delete; I deleted my own kits back in May.

  8. Its quite saddening the direction this all took with several companies.
    I am still in, as I have not finished what I have to do. I can do things
    on GEDMatch that are impossible elsewhere, and I see this window
    closing rapidly.
    It took some doing, but I built a Lazarus kit for someone 300 years old.
    I was able to triangulate the results to get rid of the chaff, and came up
    with results that would be impossible in any other way. It sounds like a
    farce, but it is true. Developing such features would be uninteresting to
    a law enforcement oriented owner. (Who is looking for answers in a 400
    year old “Cold Case”. 😉
    I see these developments as a loss for everyone, and maybe especially,
    for law enforcement.
    Have a good day, (and I have yet to read the European sign-up disclaimer.)
    RR.

  9. I have a lot of respect for your opinions and attitudes.
    It seems like a good sounding-board, with good information
    here. I hope to get back to you later with a couple of questions.
    Thank You,
    RR.

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