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You may have heard the recent string of news stories about law enforcement solving cold case crimes with genetic information. Criminals were caught by matching DNA samples collected from crime scenes with distant relatives that have submitted a DNA sample to genealogy websites. Police officers have managed to identify rapists, serial killers, and other violent offenders through their family members who willingly submitted their genetic information to a DNA database, most often for genealogy purposes. Arguably one of the highest profile cases included the use of the GEDmatch database, which allowed the FBI to identify Joseph James DeAngelo, Jr. as the infamous Golden State Killer after decades of the case being unsolved in Sacramento, California.
DNA profiles contain extremely personal data, and although catching criminals is important, some people are wondering, is genetic genealogy safe? What is the site policy for uploading your raw data to GEDmatch? In this blog post, we will explore privacy concerns and the options available to keep your DNA data protected if you use GEDmatch.
Firstly, what is GEDmatch?
GEDmatch is a free website that allows raw DNA data to be uploaded and matched with other users. The website was created in 2010 by retired businessman Curtis Rogers and transportation engineer John Olson in Lake Worth, Florida. Their intention was to provide genealogists and researchers help in learning more about their heritage and family tree. They accept GEDCOM data file uploads and raw data files (a text file) from several DNA companies, including, among others:
After uploading autosomal DNA information, GEDmatch users have the ability to use various tools such as family finder to learn more about their family history. For $10 per month, users gain Tier 1 premium membership that includes a specialized method of finding common ancestors. Since it was founded, the GEDmatch site has built its genealogy database to over 1 million users and has helped more than 10,000 adoptees find their biological parents. More recently, GEDmatch was purchased by the forensic company Verogen, making it easier for law enforcement officials to make discoveries in the database. However, the company still gives you the option to opt-out of law enforcement searches if you so choose.
GEDmatch has several options to protect privacy
1. You can use an alias instead of your name.
When genetic data is uploaded, GEDmatch asks the user to provide a name and an optional alias to be connected to each DNA kit. If an alias is provided, other users are not able to see the name connected to the kit.
2. You can use an anonymous email address.
If privacy is a top priority, it may be best to use an anonymous email address that leaves out identifying information such as a name or initials.
3. GEDmatch allows you to choose whether your DNA results are public, private, or can be used for research. Find out more about these options below:
Setting your kit to private prevents your results from showing up on DNA match lists of other users and prevents you from seeing your matches. This option limits the tools available to users; however, there are some tools available that do not rely on comparing DNA data among users.
2) Public opt-in
The public option allows your DNA data to be compared with any other users that have uploaded their profile. If your kit is set to public, your kit number, name (or an alias if provided), and your email address will be displayed. The “opt-in” option allows your kit to be compared with kits uploaded for law enforcement purposes.
3) Public opt-out
Again, selecting the public option makes your results available to be compared with other users. Selecting the “opt-out” option makes your kit unavailable for comparison with data uploaded for law enforcement purposes. This privacy feature was added in May 2019 to allow users more control over how their data is used by GEDmatch.
Similar to the private option, the research option also keeps your profile off other users’ match lists, but still allows you to see your own. Only users who know your kit number will be able to view your matches, so your test results can stay as private as you want.
GEDmatch provides another feature that allows you to match more specifically on single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs. This SNP sharing pool is optional and can potentially expose health-related information to other users. If you have any concerns about health privacy, be sure to opt your kit out of the pool. All of these controls can be changed at any time simply by editing your data preferences.
Updates to GEDmatch’s Policy
Since news broke of the Golden State Killer case being solved with the help of DNA testing, people have voiced their concerns about whether this data sharing violates privacy. GEDmatch is an open source website that was created for genealogy research and its co-founders believe results are more robust when shared. In April 2018 they began informing users their data may be shared with others, and in May 2019 they began requiring people who upload their DNA data to choose whether their information can be shared with law enforcement, with the default being NOT sharing.