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11 Dec, 2019 21:24

Genealogy hobbyist database sells out to FBI-linked forensic genetic sequencing firm

Genealogy hobbyist database sells out to FBI-linked forensic genetic sequencing firm

A controversial genetics database has turned over 1.3 million customer profiles – believed to overlap with 60 percent of white Americans’ DNA – to a forensics firm that mines genetic data for law enforcement. What could go wrong?

GEDMatch, one of the world’s largest repositories of genetic data, has been purchased by Verogen, an FBI-linked forensic genetics firm dedicated to exploiting the crime-solving potential of biological evidence. While GEDMatch was founded in 2010 as something of a hobby site for amateur genealogists to upload the results of personal DNA tests (the company does not conduct its own tests) and uncover unknown family relations, it has become better known in recent years for its role in solving the Golden State Killer case – which earned plaudits from law enforcement but excoriations from privacy advocates. Jumping into bed with Verogen – a company founded specifically to weaponize genetic data for law enforcement – indicates GEDMatch is going long on the genealogical panopticon.

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It isn’t just the 1.3 million individuals – reportedly increasing by 1,000 every day – who have profiles on GEDMatch who are potentially imperiled by the Verogen acquisition. A 2018 study found that the same DNA search that nabbed the Golden State Killer could serve up data on some 60 percent of white Americans through distant relatives (third cousins or further), with that proportion increasing exponentially as more users sign up to the database. Only about 0.5 percent of US adults are currently subscribed to GEDMatch; when that number surpasses 2 percent, the DNA dragnet will be capable of ensnaring upwards of 90 percent of white Americans.

GEDMatch came under fire earlier this year after its founder allowed police to dig through users’ DNA profiles to solve an assault case, violating the site’s own terms of service that limited authorities’ access to the database to homicide or rape investigations only. Massive public backlash following that case forced GEDMatch to overhaul its terms of service, allowing users to “opt in” to having their profiles matched against police’s crime scene samples, but such nominal barriers have already been deemed irrelevant in court. Last month, a Florida detective bragged to a law enforcement convention that he had obtained a warrant to search the entirety of GEDMatch, opt-ins or no opt-ins, and had every single profile at his fingertips within 24 hours.

Despite having been founded specifically to furnish law enforcement with genetic data, Verogen is positioning itself post-acquisition as the defenders of GEDMatch users’ rights to genetic privacy. “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,” CEO Brett Williams said in a statement released on Monday.

 But Williams also couldn’t hide his glee at having millions of users’ DNA profiles at his fingertips: “Never before have we as a society had the opportunity to serve as a molecular eyewitness, enabling law enforcement to solve violent crimes efficiently and with certainty,” he gushed. Public approval for the use of DNA databases to solve violent crimes is strong, thanks to cases like the Golden State Killer, but genetic researchers agree that it’s a slippery slope from using DNA to nab murder suspects to hacking that DNA and using it to frame people.

Most of the tests uploaded to GEDMatch are consumer DNA tests conducted by corporations like 23andme and MyHeritage – similar but not the same as the forensic tests Verogen specializes in; their widespread condemnation by the Food and Drug Administration as health scams has not stopped upwards of 26 million people from feeding their one and only genetic sequence into the industry’s maw. But access to the different data points offered by consumer DNA tests actually beefs up the detection capabilities of the forensic tests, a bonus customers probably didn’t have in mind when they purchased their original test.

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Throwing its lot in with Verogen may protect GEDMatch from retaliation by angry customers who didn’t sign up to be used as guinea pigs for the DNA police state, and the company has refused to make public the terms of the acquisition. A genetic testing company trying to get in on the good side of the nascent national DNA dragnet could do worse than to cozy up to Verogen – the FBI has officially adopted the group’s technology to generate DNA profiles for its National DNA Index System, which began a nationwide rollout this year with the eventual goal of placing a DNA testing kiosk in every police station. Indeed, the only losers in the deal seem to be the customers whose DNA can now be used against them.

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