A genealogy site is taking steps to protect users’ privacy, but law enforcement officials fear the new policy change could hinder police access to DNA data used to solve crimes.
Florida-based GEDMatch now gives users the choice to “opt in” or out of letting police have access to their information, co-founder Curtis Rogers announced this week. By default, all user profiles will be set to “opt out” unless users decide otherwise.
GEDMatch users must now “opt in” for their DNA data to be included in police searches of the database. (Getty Images)
“Ethically, it’s a better option,” Rogers told ABC News. “It’s the right thing to do.”
The change, which took effect Sunday, requires participants to explicitly opt in for their DNA profiles to be included in law enforcement searches. While the move has been cheered by privacy advocates, police fear it will make it harder to solve crimes and nab criminals like the Golden State Killer.
“It’s a shame it could leave a murderer running on the streets,” Orlando Police detective Michael Fields said. “But I perfectly understand why they’d want to change that.”
GEDMatch updated its terms of service following a BuzzFeed News report about how the site had bent its rules to allow police to search its database for relatives of a 17-year-old accused of assaulting a senior citizen in Utah. Authorities were granted special permission, as the site previously only let law enforcement investigate rapes or murders.
The decision was met with swift backlash, prompting a response from the company.
“Your story and others brought attention to the definition of ‘violent crime’ — which was clearly inconsistent with what is generally used elsewhere,” John Olson, an engineer who runs GEDmatch with Rogers, told BuzzFeed News. “The other changes were mostly based on lessons learned since our last [terms of service] revision a year ago.”
The third-party genealogy site allows users to upload their DNA profiles from commercial sites like 23AndMe and Ancestry.com to its genealogy database, thus expanding their search for possible relatives. The site doesn’t offer its own genetic testing kits.
Unlike Ancestry and 23andMe, GEDMatch allows police to use its database of genetic blueprints and previously warned users not to upload their DNA if they were worried about it being used for “non-genealogical” purpose.
So far, the site has helped police solve more than 50 crimes using what’s called “genetic genealogy.” The once little-known site made a blip on the radar in April 2018 when “Golden State Killer” suspect Joseph DeAngelo became the first public arrest through police’s use of the database. Investigators used crime-scene DNA and matched it with genetic data from a distant relative of DeAngelo’s that had been stored on the website.
“You may be asked to select which category you want to be in when you upload your DNA data,” the policy reads.
It explains that “Public + opt-in’ DNA data is available for comparison to any Raw Data in the GEDmatch database using the various tools provided for that purpose,” while “Public + opt-out’ DNA data is available for comparison to any Raw Data in the GEDmatch database, except DNA kits identified as being uploaded for Law Enforcement purposes.”
Private DNA data isn’t available for comparison with other users. Meanwhile, “Research” data “is available for one-to-one comparison to other Public or Research DNA.”
Paul Holes, a retired investigator with the Contra Costa County DA’s office who helped crack the Golden State Killer case, told BuzzFeed News he thinks the new rules are bound to set off a string of legal battles.
“You will start to see search warrants being written on GEDmatch,” Holes said. ““Of course there are going to be legal battles. It would not surprise me, years down the road, if this could be a U.S. Supreme Court issue.”