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Protecting matches’ privacy

So The Legal Genealogist is in Toronto, Canada, for the 2016 Ontario Genealogical Society Conference, and wow… more than 700 registered and very enthusiastic attendees have made this a truly wonderful conference.

My own presentations have focused on methodology and resources and ethics and ethics and ethics and…

Do you get the idea that maybe ethics is an issue these days?

It really is, for all of us, as we sometimes struggle with what we should and shouldn’t be doing, as genealogists and as genetic genealogists.

But here’s the bottom line: every ethical code throughout the entire genealogical community requires that we protect the rights of living private people to be living private people. And that expressly and explicitly includes our DNA cousins.

The newly revised Guidelines for Sharing Information With Others of the National Genealogical Society provide in part that: “genealogists and family historians consistently — respect the restrictions on sharing information that arise from the rights of another … as a living private person;” and “convey personal identifying information about living people—such as … genetic information…—only in ways that those concerned have expressly agreed to…”1

You’ll find the same guidance in the Genetic Genealogy Standards developed by an ad hoc committee of genealogists, genetic genealogists, and scientists, and formally announced last year:

Genealogists respect all limitations on reviewing and sharing DNA test results imposed at the request of the tester. For example, genealogists do not share or otherwise reveal DNA test results (beyond the tools offered by the testing company) or other personal information (name, address, or email) without the written or oral consent of the tester.2

So here’s one thing we do without thinking that violates these ethics codes: we screen-capture information from our DNA match lists — and we post it online. With the avatar — the photo of the DNA cousin that identifies that person. With a name or a screen name that does the same. And with the genetic information — the fact that the person is a match and how the person matches us — all hanging out there for anyone to see.

Now the simple fact is, when any of us takes a DNA test, we give consent for our matching information to be disclosed to our DNA cousins — to those people that we match. We have to do that, or there’s really no sense in testing at all. But the consent only goes that far: to our DNA cousins. We’re not consenting to having our DNA cousins turn around and redistribute our information to the world online.

That doesn’t mean we can’t use examples from our DNA lists or post questions online about our matches.

What it means is, we need to take a few extra seconds before we post something online to protect the privacy of our DNA cousins.

In other words… we blur the lines.


Every photo processing software we have on our computers will let us isolate a piece of information we’ve screen-captured and blur it so it can’t be read by anyone else. All of those avatars — those photos of our matches. All of the screen names. All of the “administered by” names. Anything that might identify one of our DNA matches if we don’t have permission to share it online has to be masked in some way — and blurring it is a fast and easy way.

In the image above, I have four areas that I blurred out: for the first cousin, the avatar because it was a photograph, and the screen name; for the second cousin, the initials used for this match and the name of the person who’s administering the kit. Using Photoshop and the Gaussian blur filter, it took less than a minute to do all four.

Now maybe neither of these cousins would mind if I showed their information. But I can’t know that. So unless I ask, and get permission, I have to consider that I don’t have permission to share even the fact that they are my genetic cousins.

So in the interests of their privacy, if I want to post any of their information online… blur the lines.


  1. National Genealogical Society, Guidelines for Sharing Information with Others, updated 2016, PDF ( : accessed 4 June 2016).
  2. Paragraph 8, “Standards for Obtaining, Using, and Sharing Genetic Genealogy Test Results,” Genetic Genealogy Standards ( : accessed 4 June 2016).
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