New owner of consumer DNA database vows to fight police search warrants

The new owner of a consumer DNA database that has powered a revolution in forensics vowed to resist attempts by police to circumvent the site’s privacy rules.

Verogen, a California-based DNA analysis company, announced Monday that it had purchased GEDmatch, a website founded for amateur genealogists that is now being used by police to solve old murders and rapes.

The new owner will continue to offer the site for searches by law enforcement that adhere to its newly restrictive terms of service, Verogen CEO Brett Williams said Tuesday. But if police try to get a court order bypassing those terms, seeking access to the DNA profiles of people who have requested that they remain off-limits, Verogen will fight it, he said.

“For me, it’s about trust,” Williams said. “If people are going to agree with the terms of service, and then those terms are violated, there is no trust there.”

That would represent a much tougher stance from the site’s founder, Curtis Rogers, who did not fight a June search warrant from police in Orlando, Florida, who said GEDmatch had limited their access to users’ data in the middle of an investigation of a series of rapes.

The warrant, approved by a judge, has raised concerns that police could use the same tactic to search other consumer DNA sites that have even tighter restrictions on what police can see.

“I would have fought the warrant,” Williams said in an interview.

Williams said GEDmatch has not received any search warrants since the Orlando order. But he said he would take a harder line the next time it happened. “How we respond will speak volumes to the users of GEDmatch,” he said.

The warrant was one of many struggles Rogers endured since his homespun website became a law enforcement hit.

Rogers, 81, founded GEDmatch in Florida nine years ago as a place for people to compare the results of their direct-to-consumer DNA tests in hopes of finding relatives. Everything changed in April 2018, when California authorities revealed they’d used clues in GEDmatch to lead them to the suspected Golden State Killer.

Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.

The case made GEDmatch the hub of a groundbreaking forensics method called investigative genetic genealogy, in which police obtain a DNA profile from evidence taken from a crime scene and upload it to GEDmatch. Working with genetic genealogists, they use those connections, along with publicly available ancestral information, to build a family tree that could help identify a suspect.

The technique has since helped solve more than 70 rapes and murders across the country, authorities say.

Although he never imagined his site used this way, Rogers embraced the challenge ─ at least for a while. He navigated a thicket of ethical and legal issues as he tried to stay true to his original idea while also helping to catch criminals ─ and protecting the privacy of his 1.3 million users.

Rogers was repeatedly criticized for allowing police to use the site for purposes that his users didn’t agree to. In April, he and his business partner, John Olson, finally changed the site’s terms of service, drastically restricting the number of profiles available to law enforcement. The April 2019 change, which removed users from law enforcement searches unless they opted in, made cold cases much harder to crack.

Rogers urged his users to opt in.

“We are here for genealogists, not for law enforcement,” he told NBC News earlier this year. “On the other hand, law enforcement is here to stay. I feel a big obligation to make sure it’s used properly.”

Williams said Tuesday that Rogers’ more restrictive terms of service would remain in place.

He also said Verogen would work to improve the site’s security, an issue raised in October, when researchers at the University of Washington said they found GEDmatch was vulnerable to attacks that could mine the site for users’ sensitive information.

And Verogen plans to modernize GEDmatch and make it easier to use, Williams said.

Rogers declined to comment on the sale of his website. But in a letter to users, he said Verogen could run it better. He said he would remain involved “in all aspects of the business.”

He added: “Of course, I am hoping to have a little more time to pursue passions I haven’t been able to indulge in for years, including working on my own genealogy.”

It was not immediately clear how the ownership change would affect ongoing criminal cases that have relied on information from GEDmatch ─ or how having a for-profit forensics company running a genealogy site would be received by its users.

Only one other company, FamilyTreeDNA, a direct-to-consumer DNA service, allows law enforcement to search its database. Another, DNA Solves, was recently created by Othram, a private DNA lab, to collect profiles for law enforcement to search.

Colleen Fitzpatrick, a genetic genealogist who relies on GEDmatch, said it was too early to know the impact of the company’s change in ownership. “There are a lot of unanswered questions,” she said.

But Fitzpatrick, who co-founded the DNA Doe Project, which identifies unknown bodies, and runs IdentiFinders, which helps find suspects in old crimes, said she was happy for Rogers and Olson.

“They were under siege and very vulnerable and that meant that the database has been very vulnerable,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’m relieved, at least for now.”

Debbie Kennett, a British genealogist and blogger, said she thought Verogen would improve GEDmatch, but worried about commercial enterprises running all the DNA databases available to law enforcement.

“We still don’t have any protection about when law enforcement can use these databases,” she said. “It’s up to the companies’ terms and conditions. There should be an extra level of regulatory control and oversight.”