Why, Ancestry? Why?

Preserving the evidence

“Family history is in our DNA,” reads the ad at AncestryDNA’s website. “What’s in yours?”

Anyone who has paid attention to the DNA offerings at Ancestry.com in recent months couldn’t have been surprised by the announcement this past week that Ancestry was discontinuing its YDNA and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) tests and — going forward — will only offer the autosomal test under its AncestryDNA brand.

adnaFor months now, if you went to the page to try to order either the YDNA test (the test for the male gender-linked DNA passed from father to son to grandson through the generations) and the mtDNA test (the test for the DNA passed from a mother to all of her children that only her daughters can then pass on to the grandchildren, and the granddaughters to their children and so on), those two tests showed up as “out of stock.”

Ancestry is a profit-making corporation. It’s not in business to do good for the genealogical community. It’s in business to return a profit to its shareholders. If, in the process, it happens to serve the needs of the genealogical community, that’s a nice side benefit. But the corporate bottom line is, well, the bottom line here.

No business can long survive with unprofitable products, and we as genealogists can’t expect any company we do business with to put our interests before those of their shareholders.

Ancestry is giving its customers three months’ notice that they need to download their DNA test result data. Bloggers all over the internet are advising people how to get the most use out of the test results that exist now before Ancestry permanently deletes the results and the matching system for those tests.

We may not like it, but that’s business.

But…

But…

But…

There is something so very different about the DNA business that — to be blunt about it — the way Ancestry is handling this just plain sets The Legal Genealogist‘s teeth on edge.

Because, you see, DNA is a finite item. Once the person who gave a DNA sample is no longer with us, there may very well be no one else on the planet who has the DNA needed to make that critical breakthrough we all hope for when we do DNA testing and when we convince that older relative to give us that sample.

And Ancestry has flatly stated that it will make no effort whatsoever to preserve any of the samples that it may still have in its possession. It will not return them to the person who gave the sample or to that person’s family if the person is deceased. It has no announced plans to let its YDNA or mtDNA customers use any remaining sample for its AncestryDNA autosomal testing.

It has, instead, announced that it will destroy any samples it has that are associated with any of the YDNA and mtDNA tests people have taken at Ancestry over the years.

And in so doing may well destroy evidence of lineages that can’t be reconstructed.

It’s not an issue for anyone who tested before and who is still alive. Another test can be done, at another company, to capture — or recapture — the data needed. And it may not be an insurmountable problem in families where another candidate can be found to test.

But what about the family that tested the grandfather who was the last living representative of a male line that is now gone? The grandmother whose genes contained the last direct evidence of a female line?

It certainly isn’t Ancestry’s fault if we and our families lose genetic evidence because we dilly-dallied around and didn’t get the testing done when it could have been done.

But it’s different where there is a sample that exists right now that could be used. It’s different because many people expected that they’d be able to upgrade their DNA tests down the road. That the samples would still be there. That they could be used for the purpose for which they were given.

If there’s a compelling reason why these samples have to be destroyed, Ancestry owes its customers a clear and straightforward statement of that reason. Why do these samples have to be destroyed?

And if there isn’t a compelling reason… if this impending loss of genetic evidence is preventable, if the samples in fact could be used or preserved or returned, well, the words I might use to describe that probably can’t be published even on a website I own.

“Family history is in our DNA,” the ad says. It would be appalling if even a single family were to needlessly lose the chance to answer the question the ad goes on to ask — “What’s in yours?”

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58 Responses to Why, Ancestry? Why?

  1. Sheri Bush says:

    Did you have to sign or acknowledge a TOS when you signed up? That might help in getting the sample back? It would be tragic to lose in the case of death of the owner of the sample. I just can’t imagine how I would feel. Very angry for sure. Making me think. . . .

    Sheri

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You’re right to emphasize the terms of service, Sheri. Unfortunately, most people won’t have copies of the terms that existed when they tested, and many tested with Sorenson, whose assets were acquired by Ancestry.

  2. Lisa says:

    My 4th cousin who is a male Choctaw Indian (registered) and I match. I was adopted (female) and as far as we know, no other living Brown relatives we can match with. I really need help with this. It is way over my head what to do now. We tested with ftdna but I’m trying to desparately search all these segments looking for possibilities. Seems we have no one on his ydna that matches him. Not everyone uploads the raw data to gedmatch and with ancestry destroying potential matches, finding our ancestors may not ever be possible.

  3. Dave Mitchell says:

    Hi Judy

    Your arguments are so valid. Thank you for putting them together so eloquently and clearly.

    Is there any genealogical body who can negotiate with Ancestry.com, for the retention and transfer of the remaining DNA samples? i.e. For those that remain after all interested (and still living) Ancestry.com customers have retrieved their info and/or samples?

    Or to put the issue another way …. How can the genealogical community (all the “good guys — and gals”) establish what is stopping Ancestry.com from doing this of its own accord? Is it legal constraints, arising from their customer contracts? If so, are these concerns and views valid? Is it cost? Or is it just bloody-mindedness or a lack of sensible thought? Surely these results and samples can be made over to another tester (e.g. FamilytreeDNA)? Assigned or ceded? Even if a modest cost is involved, that can be tackled …

    This seems a good cause for genealogists to take up.

    As you say, surely a responsible and would-be-leading genealogical resources company is NOT in the business of proactively DESTROYING available genealogical data?!

    Ancestry.com will keep their former customers trees as posted up and running (even if unchecked and with errors!), but cannot and will not find some way of utilising, preserving and/or sharing their DNA information … ?

    The mind boggles at such narrow thinking and short-sightedness.

    Shame on you guys! We’re your subscribers — make an effort to be constructive …!

    Dave Mitchell
    Cape Town
    South Africa

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It certainly is a shame that the match system isn’t being maintained, Dave. I can’t imagine that the data requirements are that onerous.

  4. Mary E Hall says:

    Thanks for the powerful and compelling statement, Judy.

    This truly is an incredible course for a company that purports to try to give genealogists and family historians access to irreplaceable “records”. The advertising logo is truly jaw dropping in light of last week’s announcement. One wonders if their marketing department has any communication with their product development team and/or with their corporate counsel.

    One small clarification….just because Ancestry.com is a “for profit” company, as opposed to a “not for profit” organization, doesn’t mean that they only consider “shareholder” (or in this case, their private equity firm) interest. Most “for profit” companies recognize they have at least 4 constituents that vital to whomever owns the entity: customers, employees, suppliers/vendors, and regulatory authorities.

    I hope there’s something more concrete than just the notion that some Silicon Valley product developers decided that mt and yDNA (not to mention other DNA companies they’ve acquired) is too complicated to manage. Otherwise, they are truly not to be trusted with the most precious contribution we give them, waaay more valuable than family trees.

    Mary E Hall
    Santa Barbara, CA

  5. There are a variety of ways to run a profitable business, often described in high-road/low-road shorthand. (Example: https://www.americanexpress.com/us/small-business/openforum/articles/5-reasons-to-take-the-high-road-in-business/) How this plays out should tell us something about which model Ancestry.com’s leaders have chosen.

  6. Donn Devine says:

    My question: what happens to the data and/or samples acquired by Ancestry through its takeover of assets of the former non-profit Sorenson Molecular Genealogical Foundation? Donors made their contributions with the understanding they would be available indefinitely for scientificic research.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      No-one has ever gotten a clear answer (to my knowledge) about just what has happened and will happen to the Sorenson samples (one of which was mine).

    • Susan Winchester says:

      Since Sorenson intended that the samples be kept, was there something in the sales/purchase agreement that specified what was to be done with the samples?

  7. unknown4470317 says:

    Let’s move the samples to FamilySearch’s Granite Mountain Vault.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Nothing can be moved or transferred without the consent of the person tested (or his or her heirs). With that consent, however, it’s hard to understand why something can’t be done.

  8. Ann Turner says:

    Does anyone have a copy of Ancestry’s terms & conditions / consent forms for Y and mtDNA? I’m not so certain Ancestry ever undertook to store DNA for those tests, given that FTDNA has made such a selling point of their 25-year storage (which, of course, they can’t really guarantee).

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Nobody is suggesting any contractual obligation, Ann, since no-one has a copy of those original documents to my knowledge. A moral obligation, for sure. And one that, in truth, would be good public relations.

  9. Tim Campbell says:

    I’ve never tested with Ancestry but have with Family Tree DNA, so have only scoured the Terms of Service, etc. with FTDNA. Having said that, my guess is that Ancestry must destroy the samples because of medical ethics and laws. FTDNA doesn’t actually hold my DNA sample and I doubt Ancestry holds any either. Those samples are actually held by another body for the purpose of satisfying said ethics and law, and FTDNA only gets what they need, when they need it. Ancestry may have their preverbal hands tied on this.

    There is also the possibility that there is not enough sample left for any useful testing. I submitted a sample for my first test, which was subsequently used for a second (upgrade) test. For a third test I had to submit a new sample.

    I can’t understand why they can’t return the samples to whoever submitted them other than to think there is some odd logistics issue.

    My 3.2 cents after taking inflation into consideration :)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Tim, I can’t imagine that any law would require Ancestry to destroy a sample if the person who provided the sample was willing to accept some alternative disposition.

  10. It seems to me that Ancestry are quite within their rights to destroy all the DNA samples. It is really a case of buyer beware. They never made any guarantees that they would store the samples in the first place. Their FAQs in the Internet Archive include the following statement:

    What will you do with my DNA after it has been tested?
    Ancestry.com will provide complimentary storage of samples submitted for DNA testing; however, Ancestry.com will not offer a guaranteed banking service of your DNA at this time.

    See:

    https://web.archive.org/web/20081017033620/http://dna.ancestry.com/faq.aspx

    It would in any case be an ethical minefield trying to do anything with the stored samples. You can’t start passing on someone’s DNA to a third party without permission. There are parallels with social media websites where family members have been unable to access their deceased relative’s e-mail account or Facebook account.

    A similar situation occurred when the Britsh DNA testing company Family Genetics folded, though I believe they’d only ever test a few hundred people. DNA Heritage never stored samples in the first place.

    Ancestry do not appear to have any intention of destroying the SMGF samples as they are using these to enrich their database of reference populations even though the original donors did not give permission for their samples to be re-used for commercial purposes. See the comments on this blog post by Ricki Lewis:

    http://blogs.plos.org/dnascience/2013/10/31/tracing-african-american-roots-through-dna

    The following statement has appeared on the SMGF’s home page ever since Ancestry bought out the SMGF database:

    “The smgf.org site will continue to operate for the foreseeable future, so we invite users to continue searching for family connections.”

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There is no ethical or legal issue involved in returning the sample to the person who submitted it (or his heirs) or in transferring it at that person’s request to another repository or in using any remaining sample for an additional test at Ancestry itself.

  11. Patricia says:

    Very well stated. Makes me wonder about using Ancestry for anything.

  12. Jennifer Zinck says:

    To Tim Campbell – FTDNA does actually hold your DNA sample. There is no other body that comes and takes those samples away once FTDNA has done the initial test you order. You can see a photo of some of the actual boxes in the storage room in the second to last photo here:http://www.ancestorcentral.com/get-your-dna-test-here-a-tour-of-the-family-tree-dna-lab/

  13. I happened to overhear two of the Ancestry reps talking about this issue at their booth at Jamboree. They repeatedly said it was “bottom line, a business decision.” Apparently there would be a lot of programming ($$$) involved in keeping the Y and mtdna databases up to date with other improvements they have planned for their site. Whether they actually ever attempted to find another home for those databases (not talking about samples here) was not clear.

    Eventually, I think this might come back to bite them, as it is not the first time the genealogy community has looked askance at their actions.

  14. Pingback: WikiWeek In Review (9 June 2014) | WikiTree Blog

  15. True! says:

    You touched on a very good point and I totally concur with all you have said. It’s bad business for all involved. Irresponsible. I can’t get over the fact I know people who have tested and passed away and what will happen to all that DNA Data. We are on the cusp of something new and you can’t go around doing this in practice it makes everything that has been accomplished have no merit. Who are we to trust. It’s beyond ridiculous with Ancestry.com and on top of everything getting DNA done with them you have to use a 3rd Party Tool. Instead of boosting sales they need to be reprimanded by the Genealogy Community and make them, yes make them Provide tools and answers to these tests. Other people who have tested been doing all the teaching. It’s not like they stand behind their own product. I have so many ills and nills with the way they have handled things since coming in the world of DNA testing. Done Venting! Thank you Judy for putting those words Down! You’ve expressed what a lot of feel and can’t find the venue to say to it OUT LOUD!

  16. John D. Tew says:

    If this is what Ancestry represented . . . “What will you do with my DNA after it has been tested? Ancestry.com will provide complimentary storage of samples submitted for DNA testing; however, Ancestry.com will not offer a guaranteed banking service of your DNA at this time.” there is ceratinly nothing incompatible with returning the sample they have not yet destroyed and are storing as a “complimentary service” to the person who submitted it –especially if the person agrees to pay all charges for the return (thus avoiding Ancestry losing any money). In fact, many people might even be willing to turn this into a small profit center for Ancestry if they will agree to return a sample with shipping and a small profit covered. Perhaps there could be an issue where the actual submitter is deceased, but in many cases the sample for elderly relatives was paid for and submitted by a living child or other relative and so maybe the one who paid for the sample kit can get the sample returned as the actual “purchaser.” I was the kit purchaser and results recipient for both my elderly father and his elderly cousin using Family Tree DNA. My father is still with us, but our cousin died over a year ago. If FTDNA were doing this to me, I would certainly contact them about my cousins sample and offer as the actual purchaser to reimburse any cost they had in retuning my cousins sample to me to have stored elsewhere. Worth exploring. AND Ancestry would be well advised to offer such an opportunity or risk a real reputation hit going forward that could indeed harm their bottom line in the future. As a long-time subscriber to Ancestry.com I know I am not happy with them over this turn of events and I have never used their DNA service — thank goodness. Shame on you Ancestry! Do the right thing and offer to retunr samples so long as it cost you nothing to do so!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Without question, there is nothing legal, ethical or moral to stop Ancestry from returning samples to people or their heirs (at least where the heirs are in agreement).

  17. Cheryl Beckerman says:

    Is there a way to see who stockholders are and then appeal to them to not let this happen?

  18. Steve Bye says:

    Since they have terminated one DNA test line of business, who is to say they won’t do it again with the other DNA tests down the line?

    I was planning on having mine done through Ancestry.com, but not now. I do not trust them to be in the DNA business in 5 years.

    Once burned, twice shy.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I would still do the current AncestryDNA test with Ancestry, Steve, because the data pool is just too deep not to want to get the benefit of the matches there. But (a) I would never test ONLY with Ancestry and (b) I would never trust them (or anyone else) with the only copy of my data.

    • Venice says:

      I disagree. I think they’re more likely to be the ONLY genetic genealogy player standing in five years rather than completely out.

      There at least three reasons I feel this way. First, their database is growing like crazy; they’ve officially acknowledged having 400,000 autosomal testers, and I think the true number is closer to half a million. All this in just two years. Second, the way they’ve integrated their test with their trees and other resources is (IMHO) ingenious. To get the most out of your test, you want a subscription, and if you have a subscription, the test can help things along. And third, both of their major competitors (23andMe and FTDNA) have real problems.

      • Judy G. Russell says:

        Linking the trees is ingenious if and only if the trees that are linked actually represent something vaguely approaching reality. Otherwise, it’s pure GIGO: garbage in, garbage out.

  19. J. Burns says:

    I am glad I have never submitted to one under Ancestry; tho I have thought of it or other DNA sites.

    This is the pits and an injustice to those who paid very good money to have these tests done; to find a possible genealogical link.

    This is a huge disservice to the genealogical community as a whole.

    Samples should be returned back to the person submitting them; ancestry should also give full reports and not only downloadable to each person taking the test(s)

    A sad day in genealogy and a setback…

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It is a real problem for those who CAN’T test anywhere else. The rest of us will muddle through.

  20. Dan says:

    I had the AncestryDNA autosomal DNA test done for myself in January, 2014. Since then, starting about May, 2014, I noticed that most of the time I cannot even access my AncestryDNA home page or test results. I don’t think Ancestry is doing well financially, and have read that it is up for sale.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I’ve had some issues with accessing the AncestryDNA pages as well, but I don’t have any real concern about the economic health of this part of the business yet.

  21. David Smith says:

    Hi Judy

    To my knowledge Ancestry does not store DNA samples once the final test results have been generated.

    In regards to the yDNA and mtDNA samples I’m pretty certain that they didn’t because I remember reading that people who upgraded to 46 markers were sent new kits.

    FTDNA made a it big deal that they were storing samples and it was a significant factor in my choosing them at the time.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      If they didn’t store samples, they wouldn’t be announcing now that they intend to destroy samples, David.

  22. John Wylie says:

    What are our national leaders doing about this? I’m talking about the Boards of FGS, NGS, NEHGS and such. They’re leaders and representing our interests should be first on their agendas.

  23. Lee Martin says:

    I read in Dick Eastman’s blog that FamilyTree DNA will allow people to transfer Ancestry.com DNA to them until early September. https://www.familytreedna.com/landing/ydna-transfer.aspx should be the proper link.

  24. Thank you for the thoughtful post. When I first saw the announcement, since my DNA test subjects are all still alive, I didn’t think through the implications for folks that have passed. I completely understand that Ancestry is a business and that you sometimes have to make tough decisions, but for a business whose foundation is based on the maintaining and sharing of data repositories this seems to cross a line. We all lament the loss of information when a church or library burns down; let’s hope that future generations are not lamenting this decision by Ancestry.

  25. Jana Last says:

    Judy,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today’s Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2014/06/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-june-13-2014.html

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  26. Angela says:

    I know this is an old thread but I hope you are still monitoring it. What about those of us who tested at Relative Genetics? We were told our samples would be stored by Sorenson for 20 years. Ancestry now is telling people that they never had these samples. In about 2010 Ancestry did an upgrade for every sample from Relative Genetics (as far as I know, every kit), to 46 markers. They didn’t ask, or announce it, one day all of our tests showed 46 markers, where many were only 18 marker results, beforehand. So, they had some sort of possession or control and had them tested without our knowledge or consent. , Of course everyone was happy but my point being, they had knowledge of where our samples were and/or had control over them at that time (2009 or 2010?)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      AncestryDNA is being remarkably close-mouthed about all of those older tests and older samples. Remarkably so.

  27. Steve Coker says:

    Destroying our DNA samples is as evil as burning irreplaceable historical records. When I sent them the yDNA sample from my uncle they promised it would be stored for 25 years. My uncle is deceased now and if I could get that sample back I might be able to use it for additional testing somewhere else. Shame on Ancestry.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know for certain that any of the samples AncestryDNA still has are viable and I would certainly impose on the user all of the costs of establishing any legal rights to the samples but I would not have voted to destroy anything. I do caution however that I don’t believe Ancestry ever promised a 25 year storage for any sample. That’s the sort of thing the other companies have said but I don’t ever recall any such representation by Ancestry.

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