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New AncestryDNA privacy setting

Every time AncestryDNA changes something, the naysayers come out in force.

Every. Single. Time.

If it changes the way it reports something.

If it changes its ethnicity results.

If it changes its terms of service.

And, now, that it’s changed a privacy setting.

Sometimes The Legal Genealogist is one of those naysayers. Heaven knows there’s been enough to criticize AncestryDNA for over the years…1

But sometimes AncestryDNA gets it right.

And this is one of those times.

AncestryDNA has just made it possible for a DNA tester to opt out of having a match list — those lists of cousins and other relatives who’ve also tested with AncestryDNA — which also means keeping the tester’s data private from others the tester matches.2

The company’s announcement explains that:

We understand the power of discovery for our customers, and look for ways to improve our services to make it easier to find new connections and explore what they may mean for your family history. We also understand the critical importance of privacy and enabling our customers’ control over their own data, which is why we strive to enhance user control in our services. Today, in that spirit of continually providing customers greater control and choice, we are introducing the ability to choose of whether or not to view and be viewed by their DNA matches.


Customers can now decide if they want to have access to the list of people they may be related to and be shown as a potential family member for other customers with whom they share DNA. While connecting family is one of the main benefits of our service, we also recognize that not everyone is open to discovering their extended family.3

And immediately the naysayers appeared. “Quit worrying so much about privacy absolutely ridiculous,” one said. Another chimed in: “this is a terrible change and the power of Ancestry’s DNA testing is greatly diminished.” Yet another started asking about refunds.

But the simple fact is: this is exactly the kind of change that’s the right thing to do.

First off, the default setting is still to be included in matching. People who’ve already tested will still see their match lists; new testers will be encouraged to choose the option to see matches as well. This is no different from the choices offered at other testing companies such as Family Tree DNA and at least as much in terms of choice as those at 23andMe.

Second, the option allows people who might otherwise not test at all a privacy option that might encourage them to stick their toes in the DNA testing waters and, once they see that it’s safe in there and there are no sharks in those waters, to open up to more sharing down the road.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we all have to understand and accept that we don’t have a right to access other people’s DNA results just because they happened to test at the same company. Many people take DNA tests for reasons other than connecting with family, and the fact that we’d like to see (and benefit from) their test results doesn’t override their interests and their concerns in their own data.

Now look… I’m a genealogist. More, I’m a genealogist with a ton of brick walls in my own family research. I’d like everybody on the face of the earth to DNA test and to make their results widely accessible. I’m as frustrated as anybody else when I want to see test results and can’t, or even want to see an online tree and can’t.

But I don’t have a right to demand access to everyone else’s DNA results just because I’d like to see them, just because they might help me in my own research quest.

I accept — however reluctantly — my ethical obligation to “respect all limitations on reviewing and sharing DNA test results imposed at the request of the tester.”4

People test for different reasons. Sometimes those reasons march hand-in-hand with our research interests. And sometimes they’re at cross-purposes with our wants and desires.

But the one thing that we all have to accept is: it’s not our DNA. It belongs to the tested person, and that tested person has privacy rights that outweigh any interest we might have. Either we join in protecting those privacy rights — or we’d better expect the government to step in and do it in a way we don’t like one bit.

This is one time AncestryDNA got it right.

And — reluctantly or not — we all have to accept that the only person who has a right to make the decision when it come to control of DNA results is the person who tested.


  1. I am hardly an AncestryDNA fangirl. See e.g. Judy G. Russell, “Opting out,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 26 Jul 2015 ( : accessed 4 Nov 2017).
  2. See “Continued Commitment to Customer Privacy and Control,” Ancestry blog, posted 2 Nov 2017 ( : accessed 4 Nov 2017).
  3. Ibid.
  4. ¶8, Genetic Genealogy Standards ( : accessed 4 Nov 2017).
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