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Overreaction

It was probably inevitable the moment the very first headline appeared online, inaccurately accusing Ancestry of handing over DNA data without a court order.

smgfThat never happened, but the mere accusation that it did was enough.

And the entire genealogical community took the hit.

Because it really was probably inevitable that Ancestry would decide to cut its losses, limit its future exposure to that kind of false publicity, and shut down one of the most valuable genetic genealogical databases that’s ever been created.

This week, Ancestry shut down the Sorenson Molecular Genetics Foundation database that had been available at http://www.smgf.org/.

The announcement came without warning, appearing at the website without other notice:

We regret to inform you the site you have accessed is no longer available.

Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF) was founded in 2000 with the philanthropic goal of helping connect mankind. It was the organization’s goal through the sharing of genetic data, to show how the similarities we possess are greater than our differences. The site was created in the spirit of openness and it is in that spirit AncestryDNA purchased the DNA assets from SMGF to further its mission and support the intentions on which it was founded. Unfortunately, it has come to our attention the site has been used for purposes other than that which it was intended, forcing us to cease operations of the site.

We understand the site has been a helpful resource for genealogists and plan to advance the original vision of Mr. Sorenson by continuing to develop tools like ethnicity estimates, matching, DNA Circles, and New Ancestor Discoveries, which are connecting mankind. There are no plans to destroy the DNA that was contributed, but have no plans to make the service available in the future.

Ancestry is committed to helping people understand their family’s unique story and through AncestryDNA, make new discoveries about their family’s past and cultural roots. Like the original founders of SMGF, Ancestry also believes one can have a better understanding of who we are and where we come from. Through our continued work on family history and DNA, we will encourage the same mission of SMGF in hopes of making the world a smaller, more relatable place.1

Now in case you missed it, here’s the reality of why we just lost access to this database: “it has come to our attention the site has been used for purposes other than that which it was intended.” A single documented case of access by police looking for a murderer. A single case where the end result was that a person suspected was cleared by DNA evidence.2 A single case — and we have all lost.

Talk about throwing out the baby with the bathwater!

This isn’t the first time Ancestry has reacted that way. Years ago, a spate of publicity falsely suggesting that identity theft was being aided by access to the Social Security Death Index at Ancestry and its free property Rootsweb caused Ancestry to take the SSDI off of Rootsweb completely and to redact some of the Social Security numbers from the records even behind the Ancestry pay wall.

In both cases, there were other options available that could have retained more — or at least some — access to the information without simply shutting things down. Those options wouldn’t have been as easy, but the fact that the kneejerk reaction (“just close it down”) is easy doesn’t make it right.

The Legal Genealogist knows better than to think we have any hope of reversing the Ancestry decision. There is no profit potential to this profit-making corporation in keeping the SMGF database available to the public and, thanks to fearmongering and bad reporting, a real downside to doing so.

But there is one aspect to this loss that Ancestry should address, can address, ethically and morally must address: the loss to families of data that cannot be replaced.

The fact is that there are samples in the Sorenson database that are irreplaceable: the people whose samples were reviewed are deceased; their DNA can no longer be obtained. The families who contributed those samples had no notice that the database would be shut down. They didn’t know they were about to lose their own results and the results of their searches of the database.

Had Ancestry given them notice — had it told the genetic genealogy community this was coming — the families could have saved the search data that is of vital interest to them.

We all understand that we’re not going to have unlimited access to this database in the future. But what we’ve lost is part of our past. And it’s a loss Ancestry can prevent by allowing limited access to the database by the families whose data was collected for it.

Just reopening the SMGF database for a brief time — 30 days, even two weeks — with notice to SMGF contributors and the genetic genealogy community would go a long way towards reducing the devastating impact of this loss.

We don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Ancestry, are you listening?

Ancestry, show us that you can be a good steward of DNA data.

Ancestry, show us that you care.


SOURCES

  1. Sorenson Molecular Genetic Foundation (http://www.smgf.org/ : accessed 16 May 2015).
  2. For more background, see Judy G. Russell, “Facts matter!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 3 May 2015 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 16 May 2015).
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