Tuesday 17 December 2019

An update on EU kits at GEDmatch and a message from Curtis Rogers

We learnt last week that GEDmatch has been acquired by the forensics company Verogen. I now have some further information about the handling of European Union users at GEDmatch. When the sale first went through only a small number of EU users were presented with a consent form in order to access the website. We thought at the time that the form was only being shown to those who had an identifiable e-mail address in the EU. I did not have to re-consent when I first tried to log onto GEDmatch, presumably because my e-mail address had a .com suffix and not a .co.uk suffix. That all changed some time last week, and Verogen are now identifying EU users by their IP address. As a result I found that I had to re-consent to use the site. Below are screenshots of the data transfer form which all EU users are now required to sign.

Having signed the form you are then presented with this screen.

You are then given the option to decide on a kit by basis which kits you would like to transfer to Verogen, which kits you would like to delete and which kits you would like to decide about later.

Many people have been reporting that they've lost a lot of matches at GEDmatch and that some of their kits have disappeared. Genetic genealogist Paul Watkins contacted Verogen and he has given me permission to share the contents of the reply he received which explains what has been happening:
While we did have issues with Kits “disappearing” this week from UK users, the main reason that matches are looking like they disappear is that people who are subject to European General Data Privacy Regulations (GDPR) have been pulled out of the database temporarily, as we are legally required to obtain consent to transfer control of users data to Verogen.

Unfortunately, in addition, to known EU users, there are also many users that we do not know their location (we use the IP address of the user when they login to determine the country of origin). This group contains a mix of users from different countries (EU, US, and ex-US users). However, because there is most certainly EU users in this unknown location group, the legal ramification of violating European GDPR is severe, and this has forced us to pull these people out of the database until they log in and consent. 
Users from the EU and those with an unknown location are logging back in, and we expect that these matches will repopulate over time. We are also reaching out proactively to these users to ask them to log in to confirm their location and accept the new terms of service.
The issue of disappearing kits appears to have been resolved and the following notice now appears when you log into GEDmatch.
Meanwhile it has been reported in the official GEDmatch Facebook group that Curtis Rogers will be sending out an e-mail to all GEDmatch users. I've copied the text of the e-mail below for reference:
To GEDmatch users, 
As you may know, on December 9 we shared the news that GEDmatch has been purchased by Verogen, Inc., a forensic genomics company whose focus is human ID. This sale took place only because I know it is a big step forward for GEDmatch, its users, and the genetic genealogical community. Since the announcement, there has been speculation about a number of things, much of it unfounded. 
There has been concern that law enforcement will have greater access to GEDmatch user information. The opposite is true. Verogen has firmly and repeatedly stated that it will fight all unauthorized law enforcement use and any warrants that may be issued. This is a stronger position than GEDmatch was previously able to implement. 
There has been concern that Verogen will eliminate GEDmatch free tools and raise Tier 1 rates. In fact, Verogen has made it clear that the free tools will remain, and there are no immediate plans to raise Tier 1 rates. 
It has been reported on social media that there is a mass exodus of kits from the GEDmatch database. There has been a temporary drop in the database size only because privacy policies in place in the various countries where our users reside require citizens to specifically approve the transfer of their data to Verogen. As users grant permission, that data will again be visible on the site. We are proactively reaching out to these users to encourage them to consent to the transfer. 
The sale to Verogen will be a tremendous benefit to genealogists. Verogen has pledged to continue the GEDmatch philosophy of providing free services. It recognizes that all information belongs to the users who have placed it on GEDmatch, that this information may be removed by the users at any time, and that strong privacy protections need to be in place. It is to Verogen’s advantage to build the consumer database, meaning more and better matches for users. Verogen recognizes that law enforcement use of genetic genealogy is here to stay and is in a better position to prevent abuses and protect privacy than GEDmatch ever could have done on its own. 
Bottom line: I am thrilled that the ideal company has purchased GEDmatch. The baby I created will now mature for the benefit of all involved. If anyone has any doubts, I may be reached at [email address redacted]. I will do my best to personally respond to all concerns. 
Curtis Rogers
It will take time for GEDmatch to settle back down after the sale but I would urge everyone to give the new owners the benefit of the doubt and to see how it all works out in the months to come.

Thursday 12 December 2019

Free uploads to MyHeritage and news of the MyHeritage 2020 conference

MyHeritage have announced that their conference will take place in Tel Aviv in October. I went to their conference this year in Amsterdam and had a fantastic time and will be looking forward to a trip to Israel. You can find further information about this conference in this blog post from MyHeritage.

In other news from MyHeritage they have a special offer on this week for free DNA uploads to their autosomal DNA database. If you have taken an autosomal DNA test at 23andMe, AncestryDNA, FamilyTreeDNA or Living DNA you can transfer your data to the MyHeritage database to find new genetic cousins. There are people in the MyHeritage database who have not tested elsewhere. MyHeritage now have over 3.5 million people in their database, and they have particularly good representation in non-English-speaking countries in Europe.

Anyone who uploads between now and 18th December will benefit from free access to all the advanced features which normally require a one-off payment. You can find further details in this blog post from MyHeritage.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

GEDmatch has been acquired by the forensic genomics company Verogen

GEDmatch has been acquired by the forensic genomics company Verogen. The acquisition was announced today in a press release from Verogen.
SAN DIEGO, CA (December 9, 2019) — GEDmatch, a pioneer in consumer genealogy, today announced that it has joined with forensic genomics firm Verogen, Inc. in a move that allows the company to ensure ongoing privacy protections and enhance the customer experience for users of its website. 
“I am confident that we have found an ideal partner for GEDmatch,” said founder Curtis Rogers. “Verogen understands our philosophy and shares the vision of GEDmatch, which has always been about using science to connect people,” Rogers said. “Verogen is able to support our growth while staying true to our roots.” 
GEDmatch allows users to upload genetic profiles created by other genealogy sites in order to expand the search for familial links. GEDmatch’s database currently has more than 1.3 million customer profiles and is gaining as many as 1,000 new users every day. 
In the coming months, GEDmatch users will begin to see improvements to the website, such as an enhanced homepage that offers increased functionality, Verogen CEO Brett Williams said. Verogen will also bolster the GEDmatch platform, resulting in increased stability and optimal searchability. These back-end changes won’t disrupt the experience for users and, in fact, will make searching the database easier, Williams said. 
GEDmatch’s terms of service will not change, with respect to the use, purposes of processing, and disclosures of user data, Williams confirmed. The website gives users a choice to opt-in to allow law enforcement to search uploaded files as a tool to solve violent crimes. Among the successes of this technology is work by public safety officials who used GEDMatch to apprehend accused Golden State Killer Joseph DeAngelo, a notorious serial killer who terrorized California and evaded police for decades until his arrest in 2018. 
As many as 70 violent crimes have been solved as a result of genealogy searches. “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,” Williams said. 
“Still, our users have the absolute right to choose whether they want to share their information with law enforcement by opting in,” 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.” 
Added Rogers: “Our number one priority is our customers. We are and always have been a genealogy site whose goal is to help people find answers they’re looking for about themselves and their families. As we grow, we want to enhance the customer experience by making the site more user-friendly and by ensuring data is protected. Verogen can help us do that.” 
Under terms of the deal, Rogers will retain a key role focused on the primary mission of GEDmatch, which is to provide tools to help amateur and professional researchers and genealogists. 
GEDmatch customers who have questions about the partnership or how their privacy is protected are encouraged to contact customer service at gedmatch@verogen.com
If you have an account on GEDmatch you will now see a notice when you log in to the website informing you of the need to sign up to the new Terms of Service and Privacy Policy which have been introduced "in view of recent events in the genealogical community".
The revised Terms of Service clarify that GEDmatch is now operated by Verogen "following the acquisition by Verogen of the GEDmatch website".

Some European Union users are being asked to fill in an extra consent form before they can access their one-to-many matches. However, despite being in the EU, I have not had to fill in this form. There is speculation that the form is only being shown to those who have e-mail addresses that can be readily identified as being from EU countries.

At the end of the new site policy you are given three options: to accept the new terms of service, to reject the policy and delete your kit or to decide later. You will not be able to enter the site unless you accept the new terms of service.
To see the differences between the old and new privacy policies at GEDmatch see this saved link from DiffChecker.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. With the investment from Verogen we are likely to see improved functionality at GEDmatch, a better user interface and improved security measures. However, Verogen will also need to recoup their costs. Will genealogists be put off from using a genealogy database that is owned by a forensics company? I've already seen lots of comments from genealogists on Twitter and Facebook who have indicated that they will now be deleting their kits from GEDmatch. Will Verogen be able to attract enough paying subscribers to the Tier 1 tools to make a profit? Will Verogen introduce new subscription features? Will they charge law enforcement agencies for access to the database? How will Verogen react if they are served with a subpoena or search warrant for access to kits which have not opted in?

GEDmatch is now one of three genetic genealogy databases that can be used by law enforcement agencies. Gene By Gene, the parent company of FamilyTreeDNA, has its own lab where it provides forensic testing. They allow law enforcement agencies access to their genetic genealogy databases but charge a substantial fee to cover the costs of registering the users and processing the paperwork. Controversially, FTDNA now automatically opt in all their customers to law enforcement matching regardless of where they live. Few people read through all the terms and conditions when signing up for a genealogy test and so they will not have given fully informed consent to have their data shared with law enforcement. EU customers were automatically opted out of law enforcement matching prior to March 2019, but customers in all other countries were opted in.

DNA Solves is a new website set up by David Mittelman of Othram. Mittelman was previously the Chief Scientific Officer at Gene by Gene. DNA Solves has not yet been officially launched but is intended as a law enforcement-only database. Few details are currently available about how the site will operate.

It remains to be seen how this will all work out. Time will tell.

Update 10 December 2019
Verogen have sent out the following e-mail to their customers.
To Our Valued Customers:

We are pleased to share news that has far-reaching benefits for our company, our customers, and our scientific and law enforcement partners. Today, Verogen announced its acquisition of GEDmatch, an online genetic genealogy service that has been central to law enforcement solving over 70 cold cases in the U.S.

What this means for you

On a day-to-day basis it is business as usual. Verogen will continue to provide NGS instrumentation, software, reagents and consumables to a global customer base for forensic and biometric based human identification. Meanwhile, we will bring significant technical and scientific resources to build a more expansive GEDmatch platform that will exhibit increased security and ease of use. In the coming months, we will engage you in a conversation about the future of genetic genealogy, and how Verogen will enable the operational forensic laboratory to participate in the exciting revolution.

For more information, you can read the full press release here. 

The Verogen story continues…

Verogen was spun out from Illumina in August 2017 and is the only company solely focused on providing NGS instrumentation, software, reagents and consumables for forensic and biometric based human identification.

Verogen is building an NGS-based forensic ecosystem that is focused on a single platform multi-application strategy with common workflows between the applications. We are developing a compact but powerful range of applications that work in combination to improve and extend forensic analysis of biological traces that will enhance your ability to obtain an individual’s identification.

Today we offer solutions that utilize genomic and mitochondrial DNA that address the most common challenges for casework and missing persons sample analysis. Soon, we will be rolling out new applications as part of our “single platform multi-application strategy” that will enhance and expand your ability to provide a comprehensive human ID.
Update 10th December 2019
The following message to GEDmatch users has been posted by Curtis Rogers. It is visible when you log into your GEDmatch. The full message can also be seen here: https://www.gedmatch.com/curt_msg.htm

Update 11 December 2019
There is now a new Facebook page for the new GEDmatch:


Update 18 December 2019
See my blog post An update on EU kits at GEDmatch and a message from Curtis Rogers

Further reading