GedMatch has provided an autosomal suite of tools for genealogists that isn’t offered elsewhere for several years now. Their basic service is free but their advanced tools, known at Tier 1, are subscription. GedMatch is comprised of two individuals, Curtis Rogers and his partner. I know them both and have for years.
Every serious genealogist uses or has used GedMatch because it’s the only place that provides the unique blend of tools they offer. In addition to testing at or transferring to multiple vendors, GedMatch is an integral part of fishing in every pond.
However, GedMatch has been under fire for a year.
Law Enforcement Kit Matching
In April 2018, GedMatch made news, and eventually the New York Times, when the database was utilized to catch the Golden State Killer (GSK). I wrote about that here.
GedMatch felt that they were unable to stop the uploading of forensic kits, meaning kits created from evidence left at crime scenes, so they chose to embrace working with law enforcement to catch violent criminals and identify victims whose DNA is obtained from their remains.
How often does this really work?
In the fall of 2018, a paper titled Re-identification of genomic data using long range familiar searches was published by Yaniv Erlich et al and stated:
“Here, we leveraged genomic data of 600,000 individuals tested with consumer genomics to investigate the power of such long-range familial searches. We project that half of the searches with European-descent individuals will result with a third cousin or closer match and will provide a search space small enough to permit re-identification using common demographic identifiers. Moreover, in the near future, virtually any European-descent US person could be implicated by this technique.”
This certainly gives law enforcement reason to believe that if they could upload evidence kits from violent crime scenes and victims, that they could be identified. The cases solved since that time have proven the paper’s statement to be accurate.
Legally, this is known as “probable cause” and would provide law enforcement with a valid reason to petition the court for a search warrant to order that forensic kits be allowed to be uploaded to identify murderers and rapists. It’s likely that they can be identified, which would justify the issuance of a search warrant.
A few months later, in January 2019, Family Tree DNA began allowing law enforcement to upload kits of murderers, rapists and cases of abduction in addition to deceased unidentified victims after screening and approval on a case by case basis. The Family Tree DNA Law Enforcement Guide is here and their Law Enforcement FAQ is here.
I don’t think a comprehensive list exists of the cases solved since GSK, but I know it’s in excess of 30. Not all solved cases have been revealed at this point.
Within the genetic genealogy community, allowing law enforcement to upload DNA kits in order to identify the perpetrators of crimes and unidentified victims has caused an uproar, to put it mildly. Said another way, it has divided the community in half in an ugly way with both sides feeling they are on morally sound and superior ground.
Although surveys published in this academic article show that more than 90% of people are in favor, some of the genetic genealogy community influencers feel otherwise and specifically, that without every person in the data base giving individual consent for this type of matching, that law enforcement matching is unethical. Some are reasonable and will discuss the situation civilly, and others, not so much.
I disagree, in part, because other types of searches such as for biological parents that can have devastating consequences are viewed in another light entirely with many of these same people employed in the search for unknown parents. These searches using the exact same techniques and databases have resulted in destroyed families and murders.
In one case, Michael Lacopo’s mother murdered her father after Michael identified the father using DNA. You can read Michael’s story, here. There are also other very ugly incidents that I’m not at liberty to discuss.
Law enforcement searches for matches to identify criminals, on the other hand, lead to the apprehension of violent offenders.
I shared my opinion in the article, Things That Need To Be Said: Victims, Murder and Judgement.
Every time a new case is solved and hits the news, the outrage begins anew, culminating this past week when Curtis Rogers allowed law enforcement to utilize GedMatch for the identification of a person who broke into a church in Utah and assaulted the elderly 71 year old organist who was practicing in the church alone, strangling her from behind and leaving her for dead. You can read about the assault here.
Had the organist died, it would have been within the GedMatch guidelines, but because she did not, this was technically a breach of the GedMatch terms of service – although in one place their guidelines said “violent crimes” and from my perspective, there is no question that this event qualifies. Thank goodness the 17 year old perpetrator has been identified and is being dealt with before he actually does kill someone.
Regardless, this episode in addition to other recently solved cases culminated with a number of community “influencers” removing both GedMatch and Family Tree DNA from presentations and openly discouraging the use of both companies on Facebook, in blog articles and in other venues. In other words, a boycott and censure, effectively.
Some of the “influencers” have been repeatedly working with BuzzFeed, as in this Buzzfeed story about the Utah case, yet others called for a more balanced approach that would not destroy the resources, companies and community built over the last two decades. Shannon Christmas wrote a balanced article here as did Maurice Gleeson here.
Yesterday, GedMatch sent e-mails to law enforcement providers and a few others, stating that they were changing their terms of service. The contents of the e-mail have been posted on social media, but I’m not comfortable publishing the exact verbiage, other than to say that GedMatch has proceeded, both initially and now, with the best interests of everyone at heart.
Curtis Rogers is concerned that the extreme paralytic division and resulting polarization is in essence threatening genetic genealogy as a whole.
Extrapolating from that, if the “influencers” manage to kill GedMatch and Family Tree DNA, not only will the community have lost incredibly important resources that are not and cannot be duplicated elsewhere, law enforcement will have lost extremely valuable resources for identifying both criminals and victims. In other words, everyone loses.
Therefore, GedMatch has implemented a new opt-in policy for law enforcement matching.
GedMatch’s New Opt-In Policy
Effective immediately, GedMatch has set all kits, of everyone in their database, to opt-out, meaning that now no kits at all can be used for matching by law enforcement unless users specifically opt-in. Here’s the GedMatch announcement on their webpage after you sign in.
This means that if you are at GedMatch, no kits in your account can now be utilized for law enforcement matching. This is clearly a devastating blow to law enforcement, in part because every database is biased towards whatever the default value is. People either don’t read or don’t bother to make changes. Many have abandoned their accounts or died.
GedMatch has already added an opt-in capability meaning that everyone will have to select “opt-in” to make their kit available for law enforcement matching.
The new GedMatch new Terms of Service are here.
We are much better as a society with the likes of John Miller, identified through GedMatch, who raped and murdered 7 year old April Tinsley put behind bars where he can’t damage anyone else. DNA identification has also provided closure to many families whose relatives have been missing for years, such as Audrey Lee Cook and Donna Prudhomme who were killed in the 1980s and whose remains were identified using the Family Tree DNA database.
I hope everyone will opt-in, and quickly, so we can rebuild the data base available to law enforcement for matching.
Viewing the list of kits that I manage on GedMatch, you can see that my kit is listed with a red X through police BY DEFAULT, even though I never made that selection. Your default is “NO” as well.
Clicking on the pencil enables viewing and changing my profile.
Enable Law Enforcement Matching
Here are the steps necessary to enable law enforcement matching.
Update – note that I’m told that the options above, with LE and no LE have been positionally swapped – so please read, not just follow my pattern.
Notice my default status is “Public, no LE access.” LE means law enforcement.
In order to change my status, I must BOTH click the radio button that says “Public, with LE access” AND click Change.
This is a 2-step process and if you forget to click change, you’ll think you enabled LE matching, but you didn’t.
Other options include:
- “No public access” at all, which means that you cannot utilize the kit for matching
- “Research” which means you can use the kit for matching, but no one else can see your results in their match list.
After the change, your kit should show the status as “Yes, opt-in LE access,” shown at left, below.
Please take the time to change your kits to “Public, with LE access” at GedMatch to enable matching to law enforcement kits to get the criminals off our streets and identify victims, providing closure to families.
Family Tree DNA
Please also upload your kits to Family Tree DNA for the same reason. At Family Tree DNA, currently if you are in the US you are opted in automatically, and if you are in an EU country you were opted-out automatically due to GDPR regulations. EU users since March 12th when the initial opt-out occurred should check their status. You can change either option after signing in by clicking on “Manage Personal Information,” then “Privacy and Sharing.”
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