I recently received an email from GEDmatch notifying me of a
change in their website’s Terms of Service.
Their website is popular with genealogists because it allows for raw
DNA profiles to be uploaded and analyzed regardless of which testing company
was used for DNA sequencing. Companies make
changes to their policies all the time, but this change has far reaching
consequences that users of this website should be fully aware of.
GEDmatch has been in the news lately for providing DNA matches that led law enforcement to solve several high-profile cold cases such as the arrest of the presumed Golden State Killer. If you are unfamiliar with this case, the Golden State Killer is responsible for at least a dozen murders and 50 rapes in California dating back to the 1970s and 80s. After more than three decades since the last murder, the case had gone cold and possibly unsolved forever. Authorities speculated that the perpetrator of these crimes must have died or gone to prison.
By linking DNA evidence collected from crime scenes to relatives found in the GEDmatch database combined with old fashioned genealogy research has allowed law enforcement to focus their search on suspects that may have already been cleared or never even considered. Through the process of elimination, a researched family tree can be whittled down to a handful of likely suspects.
What GEDmatch has done is change its Terms of Service to state that, when you upload your DNA profile to their website, you acknowledge it may be used by law enforcement to identify the remains of deceased individuals as well as identify perpetrators of violent crimes where 'violent crime' is defined as murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, aggravated rape, robbery, or aggravated assault.
In addition, they created a new opt-in system allowing current users the choice of whether to allow law enforcement use of their profile. All current one million plus profiles were set so that law enforcement could no longer use them without the specific opt-in action by the profile owner.
I am no lawyer, but it seems to me that GEDmatch had strayed
from its original Terms of Service by welcoming law enforcement to upload
profiles and use its website for purposes not clearly covered in its
policy. In order to protect themselves
from court challenges, a clarification of website terms and conditions was warranted.
While genealogy searches of the database remain unhindered by the policy change, this change has to be viewed as a devastating setback to law enforcement who rely on this database to solve cold cases, find identities of John and Jane Does, and capture violent killers and rapists.
The use of DNA websites such as GEDmatch has been hailed the “biggest crime-fighting breakthrough in decades” and now the effectiveness of this tool has been greatly diminished. We can expect the rate of cold cases being solved to dramatically slow going forward.
There is an ongoing effort by the website owners to bring
tens of thousands of profiles back through voluntary “opt ins” via email
campaigns (like the email I received).
Unfortunately, it may take years before the numbers are high enough to
make the website viable again for effective use by law enforcement.
If you have uploaded your DNA profile to this website and don’t have any concerns about law enforcement using your data to help solve crimes, then make sure you do your part by opting-in. My own decision to opt-in was an easy one.
I figured if someone in my family tree turned out to be a violent felon, they need to be identified and face justice as swiftly as possible before they have a chance to victimize anyone else. Should they get protection from justice just because of some quirky familial tie? I think not.
Hopefully, these changes to their website will make GEDmatch
a viable crime fighting tool far into the future (once a critical mass of
profiles are again available to law enforcement).
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