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.