Trust

This post has been updated.

In the midst of political turmoil in the USA, two major changes took place in the world of genetic genealogy that may have escaped attention.  The first is that FamilyTreeDNA has a new owner.  The second is that the Terms of Service at GEDmatch/Verogen are changing.

 

FamilyTreeDNA

As of 7 January 2021, FamilyTreeDNA has merged with a relatively unknown pharmacogenetics company in Australia called myDNA.  Bennett Greenspan, the former CEO of FamilyTreeDNA, has stepped back into an advisory role.

What this means for genealogists is unclear.  myDNA has no background in family history, haplogroup analysis, or relative matching.  Their business until now has focused on using DNA to devise fitness, nutrition, and skin-care plans.

Skin
Example product offered by myDNA.

 

This news comes hot on the heels of a stunning revelation: Greenspan and his company’s spokespeople had actively misrepresented the company’s involvement in the Golden State Killer case for 3 years.

Recall that Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested in April 2018 for a spree of brutal murders and rapes in California in the 1970s and 1980s.  He was identified using genetic genealogy techniques reportedly done at GEDmatch and eventually convicted.

Greenspan initially denied involvement, claiming he “was not contacted formally, by any law enforcement agency, regarding the Golden State Killer case” (27 April 2018). He later said of the FBI in the database, “When they first started using it? I don’t know” (19 Mar 2019).  By the end of January 2019, FamilyTreeDNA’s parent company had surreptitiously changed their Terms of Service to allow their new for-profit arm to work on criminal cases.  The ensuing controversy led to FamilyTreeDNA introducing an opt-out system for law-enforcement cases, but they opted in most of their customers by default.

Greenspan’s claims are disappointing, because they were not true.  As the Los Angeles Times reported recently in a shocking story, not only had Greenspan been cooperating with the FBI on the Golden State Killer case since 2017, his lab had analyzed the DNA.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Greenspan’s company changed ownership a month after that article was published.

The press release announcing the transition assures us that FamilyTreeDNA will keep “intact their privacy rules and all terms of service.”  One would hope for better.  As a pharmacogenetics company staffed by medical doctors and PhDs, myDNA should be highly attuned to the imperative for consent, for both biomedical research and for law enforcement investigations.

In fact, myDNA’s own privacy policy states “Your DNA sample and data … will never be shared without your consent” and “We will not provide information to law enforcement or regulatory authorities unless required by law.”

Or, perhaps I should say, one of their privacy policies has those statements.  They appear to have a separate privacy policy for the USA that contains no such assurances.

Another hope is that myDNA will invest in genealogical tools and website upgrades at FamilyTreeDNA, which has lagged far behind its competitors in recent years.

However, the example of GEDmatch gives me reason to doubt.

 

GEDmatch

GEDmatch, the once beloved commons for genetic genealogy, was also caught up in the Golden State Killer story, albeit without their initial knowledge or consent. They quickly warmed to the idea and within a month had changed their Terms of Service explicitly to allow law enforcement to investigate homicides and sexual assaults and to identify human remains (Does).

After GEDmatch granted a controversial exception to those Terms, they expanded their coverage to “murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, aggravated rape, robbery, or aggravated assault” and implemented an opt-in system for law enforcement matching.  Yet another controversy in November 2019—complying with a warrant for opted-out kits—led to the sale of GEDmatch a month later to a relatively unknown company with no prior genealogy interests.  Sound familiar?

At the time, there was hope that the new owner, a forensics equipment manufacturer called Verogen, would enhance privacy protections and improve the genealogical offerings at GEDmatch.

Apologies for all that backstory, but there’s a point here.  First, GEDmatch hasn’t improved much on Verogen’s watch.  New functionality has not materialized as promised, and a pair of back-to-back security breaches in July 2020 exposed the entire database to law enforcement, even kits that should not have been visible to anyone.

The website still looks like it was designed 20 years ago.  Meanwhile, Verogen has launched a GEDmatch Pro portal “to support police and forensic teams” that has a slick new interface and an undisclosed fee structure.  It’s clear where their development budget is going.

The GEDmatch and GEDmatch Pro login pages.

The Terms of Service are changing again, too, as of 11 January 2021.  The new Terms include a lot of valuable information about privacy rights in different political units (e.g., the European Union) and a promise that “Your opt-in and opt-out settings remain unchanged.”

And while that’s technically true, there’s an important caveat:  they’re not changing your settings, but they are changing what the settings mean. Bear with me.

Previously, opt-out kits were not visible to “DNA kits identified as being uploaded for Law Enforcement purposes,” which included Does.  Under the new terms, opt-out kits are not visible to “DNA kits identified as being uploaded for Law Enforcement investigation of a Violent Crime.”  Here’s the catch:  Does are not considered violent crime cases.

The relevant wording is not in the new terms for GEDmatch but in the Terms of Use for GEDmatch Pro:  “You will only use the Services for law enforcement use to identify the perpetrator of a violent crime (where ‘violent crime’ is defined as murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, aggravated rape, robbery, or aggravated assault) or to identify human remains.” [emphasis mine]

That ‘or’ means Doe cases will be able to see everyone in the public database, whether they’ve opted out of law-enforcement matching or not.  That’s new.  Until now, Doe kits have been treated like other forensic cases.

This is not the time to debate whether any individual should or should not want to help solve crimes or identify Does.  This isn’t about that.  This is about whether Verogen can be trusted.  And it’s not looking good.

This also informs our expectations for the new regime at FamilyTreeDNA, which had a similarly turbulent history before its sale to a company with no prior interest in genealogy.

To paraphrase Maya Angelou, hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and expect anything in between.

20 January 2021:  On or about 17 January, GEDmatch experienced yet another problem.  Some DNA kits that had been deleted more than a year ago were restored to the database.  These “zombie” kits were for users outside the USA.  GEDmatch has, thus far, not been forthcoming about whether these kits were placed in the matching database, whether those kits were visible to law enforcement, and what measures they are taking to ensure that this does not happen again.  On their Facebook page, they described the issue as “a minor technical issue”.

39 thoughts on “Trust”

  1. I was hoping you would look closely at the changes for GEDmatch (Verogen).

    This is indeed an interesting development and I agree with your view that things are not improving in terms of privacy but rather the opposite.

    As you wrote, this has nothing to do with one’s view about helping John/Jane Doe case or law enforcement. It’s strictly about privacy for users who have submitted their own DNA and that of close relatives under the impression that their DNA data is only used for genealogical purposes. Any change to that (see also FTDNA’s old claim that their data is never sold) is therefore very problematic to those that made such promises to close relatives (who might even be deceased now and cannot be asked anymore if they’re ok with this new usage).

    I always thought that making all the 10+ DNA kits I administer at GEDmatch as research kits and opt-out would allow me to restrict usage only to genealogical purposes. However, I slowly warm up to the idea of deleting them from GEDmatch completely.

    Not only because of the above mentioned direction in regards to privacy but also because I haven’t been using their service for years nor have I ever been contacted by another in those 7+ years that the kits are at GEDmatch. What is it worth to have them stored there (especially if they are misused against the original intent of the DNA donor?) when they aren’t used at all for genealogical purposes or if they are, those other users never reach out to me as the administer to share their findings or ask for collaboration?

    Not sure if I’m a rare use case but one would think that with 10+ DNA kits and in over 7 years you would receive at least one email about working together that shows the benefits of having those DNA kits stored at GEDmatch.

    1. I deleted my kits from GEDmatch and FTDNA (atDNA only) a long time ago. I still use both on behalf of clients, and nothing I see at either compels me to go back.

    2. I do not understand the reluctance, or hysteria, of Police comparing OUR DNA kits to track killers and rapist. “I”, believe this is a great and expedient way to keep violent people off our streets. I tell my children that they can not and must not commit crimes for their DNA is there to make an ID if warranted. If “Uncle Joe” commits a rape, then track him down any way that is possible.

    1. Hopefully, you’ve found the answer to your question, since the only response you got here was neither helpful nor reasonable. “Does” are John/Jane Does, unidentified by a real name, in this case bodies of unidentified crime victims.

      1. “Does” are defined in the blog post as unidentified human remains. The only definition that matters in this case, though is the one GEDmatch/Verogen uses, and as we’ve seen on more than on occasion, their definitions change.

  2. Thank you for being our vigilant DNA reporter. It’s truly a gift to us and a rarity in the ever increasing climate of “my way or the highway” points of view.

  3. I absolutely do not want law enforcement, or people working for them, to use my dna and/or family tree for their purposes without a proper warrant for it and I’m aware of it. It seems the news about infringements to “Terms of Use” and privacy policies are well behind the actual events. I’m losing any confidence I had with the whole field.
    I already closed out my account with GEDMatch. I’m heavily invested in FTDNA with Big700 Y test, Full Sequence MTDNA, and family finder. Fortunately, I’ve never put my tree on their site. If I pull out of them, all the studies and the namesake family group I’m involved with will lose me, and I lose all the deep dna research. My y-dna goes back to Jamestown, Virginia.
    I’m also at AncestryDNA and MyHeritage DNA. I encourage the use of my dna to be used for scientific research, and for family members to find their way. I’ve helped a couple of adoptees and hoping to find a lost uncle that was placed for adoption. But I draw the line at law enforcement unless specifically asked to help, and that’s taken on an individual basis.
    I also just learned that CeCe Moore is active on WikiTree. I have an extensive family tree on there and my dna results are connected. She uses that database for law enforcement. Since I can’t delete my tree, I need to somehow make my immediate family disappear.
    I’m ready to close out all my DNA & Family Tree info across the board. My question is: is there any entity I can still reasonably trust to protect me. Ancestry is trustworthy? How do I preserve the results of my testing while removing it from public spaces.

    1. I’m sure all of the “investigative genetic genealogists” are using FamilySearch, WikiTree, and any other resource they can access. I wish I knew the best way to protect your privacy. I’ve chosen to delete my DNA data from FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch. AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and MyHeritage have all issued statements that they would contest LE attempts to access their databases. I’m wavering on MyHeritage, because even though they’ve done nothing to lose my trust, I’m certain that unethical LE representatives are uploading to their database.

  4. Leah, this fills me with despair. I have already delete my Facebook account and have no other social media accounts, and now I am going to have to find a way to detach myself from this beloved genealogy hobby of mine and delete all my data on those sites too. In my situation, there is no way to progress without GEDmatch and how can I, in good conscience, ask my various cousins to participate with a company in which I have lost faith. We live in an environment in which our data is not our own. We are constantly being fooled by clever wording and lack of transparency. Move over, Facebook. Make way for Verogen and MyDNA. Is there a high ground anymore? Are we ever anything more than a means to someone else’s monetary objectives? Such deceit. Trust, yes, but what about respect?

    1. It’s heartbreaking. That said, I deleted my kits from GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA a year ago and it hasn’t slowed my research a bit.

    2. Hi Kate,

      If you do have DNA tests at 23andMe you can check out my website and my “Your DNA family” app. Only access allowed is for genealogical purposes.

      This should give you an overview: https://help.yourdna.family/hc/en-us/articles/360002562395-Who-are-we-and-why-are-we-doing-this-

      T&C, Data and Cookie Policies: https://help.yourdna.family/hc/en-us/articles/360002497016-Where-can-I-find-the-terms-conditions-policies-

      Data storage & compute location: https://help.yourdna.family/hc/en-us/articles/360002497036-Where-will-my-DNA-data-be-stored-

      Is there a free version: https://help.yourdna.family/hc/en-us/articles/360002203875-Is-there-a-free-version-of-the-app-

      Leah, if this violates your blog please delete my comment.

    1. I understood your comment the 1st time, fwiw.
      I’m just waiting for the new internet “moral” and “ethical” standards legislation(s) to be introduced & passed. Sanity challenging times, indeed.

  5. I trust DNA labs will help me find family.
    Just when automated clustering was starting to show me some things at Ancestry, they took away access. Did they bring their own version, like MyHeritage? No, they just expect people to research with the tools that are left.
    And I can’t access matches’ trees without a subscription. Which is little use otherwise. I will just have to tell my ancestors to move to where Ancestry might have records for them, because for 90% of my research regions they are poor to non-existent. (Hopefully other people have better placed ancestors.)
    And they took away a large chunk of my future matches among the small stuff.
    (Most that went were 3rd and 4th cousins living not far away, so I expect that will be the same for the future lost ones.)
    To me, those things are also a massive trust issue.
    And yes, I am not happy.

      1. Friends tell me that Ancestry’s TV advertising leads them to think that merely taking a DNA test with them will provide a complete family history for them without any effort on their part. That is another trust issue.
        Still, a variety of people walking into family history societies grumpy at perceived lack of delivery by Ancestry provides a continuing stream of some new members. So it’s not an entirely ill wind.
        But many others with the same initial experience move to widely proclaim that generally family history is a con and a waste. That is not so good.

        1. Shampoo commercials lead people to believe they’ll be young, skinny, and gorgeous naked. If viewers claimed Pantene was a con, would you agree?

  6. Thank you for this information. When Gedmatch first changed ownership I thought no big deal, but your email has made their true intent clear. I’ll stay with Ancestry for now though.

    1. I had hoped Verogen would improve the genealogy offerings at GEDmatch. That hasn’t happened. Fortunately, if you’re in the other databases, there’s little need for GEDmatch.

  7. OK question? I remember reading years ago that Native American (NA) ethnic groups have a smaller number of known markers compared to other ethnicities because 1) they don’t want to be tested & 2) because the tribes were decimated and dispersed over time. Is this true or false? explain.

  8. Leah could you please some clarification around whether research kits are also being used in Doe research? Thanks.

    1. To my knowledge, no, research kits are not being used in Doe searches. The Doe kits can now see what a regular public kit can see.

      1. Thanks Leah, I couldn’t find the exact phrase in the Terms of Service to answer my question and I have been trawling posts trying to find the answer! I could email GEDmatch I suppose 😉

  9. Now this is old news from the end of January about China collecting DNA from covid-19 testing. The military last year warned families not to test their DNA because it was unknown what China was doing with this info. The 60 Minutes show did talk to 23andme.

    So where does all this leave us? Do we not ever want to get our DNA tested because of China?

    https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/intel-agency-warns-of-threats-from-china-collecting-sensitive-us-health-data/ar-BB1dinKi

    1. I think you’re conflating two different issues. The US government didn’t want Chinese companies to do covid testing for security reasons. A military family testing with a US company isn’t the same thing, but security lapses at GEDmatch (which is not a testing company but a third-party site) have caused some concern.

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