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Standard 57 & ethics code amended

One of the big issues genealogists have faced in recent years is applying ethical considerations to using DNA in family history.

It’s not that ethical issues are anything new: doing family history research has always posed the risk of uncovering something in our family’s past — at least in The Legal Genealogist‘s family — that somebody might wish we hadn’t.

But DNA more commonly involves the risk of uncovering something that somebody who’s still alive today doesn’t want disclosed.

Two years ago, the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) offered up its view of how DNA could be ethically integrated into our research, and just this month modified its take on this.

Now… before I go on … let me clarify that anything I say in this post is speaking for me and me alone. Yes, I hold credentials from BCG. Yes, I’m a member of the BCG Board of Trustees. But nobody — and I mean nobody — speaks for BCG except BCG itself.

So this is my own take on these changes.

DNA ethics

Standard 57 as adopted in 2018 provided:

Genealogists wanting to share living people’s DNA test results tell them what they would like to share, how and where that sharing might occur, and any benefits and risks of the sharing. Genealogists also tell test takers about alternative privacy levels ranging from no sharing to full disclosure of data the genealogist would like to share. Genealogists share living test-takers’ data only with written consent to share that data. Assembled research results acknowledge living test-takers’ written consents for sharing their data shown therein.1

As revised in October 2020, the standard provides:

When publishing DNA test results, genealogists respect the privacy of living people. Genealogists refrain from publishing information derived from DNA test results that may cause harm. Genealogists publish personally identifying information about living test takers only with their informed consent. Assembled research results acknowledge living test-takers’ consents for publishing their data shown therein.2

The big differences — as I see them — are:

1. Much of the how-to-do-it language was moved out of the standards and into the Genealogists’ Code of Ethics, revised at the same time. The focus of the standard now is on the high level concept, requiring — as the standard title says — respect for privacy rights and attention to the need for informed consent.3

2. The focus now is on the ethical constraints on publishing DNA data rather than on sharing the data. Sitting down with a friend to try to understand our DNA results isn’t an ethical breach, even though the friend gets to see who our living matches are. Disclosing that information in a closed group of people who are subject to ethical guidelines prohibiting redisclosure (such as the small group of BCG judges who would review an applicant’s portfolio) isn’t an ethical problem either. Getting it out there in public — publishing that data on Facebook or in an article or in a public lecture — in other words, anywhere outside of that restricted small closed group — is where the ethical issue comes up.

3. The ethics code clarifies that we absolutely do, always, need consent of any living test taker before we publish personally identifying information about that test taker, and the standard clarifies that we “refrain from publishing information derived from DNA test results that may cause harm.” One of the FAQs on the changes reminds us that “ethical considerations may affect even public information about a living person” — in other words, that what may be legal isn’t necessarily right.4 This brings the standard more clearly into harmony with all of the ethical guides we have in genealogy, such as the National Genealogical Society’s Guidelines for Sharing Information with Others.5

4. Consent, when we need it, doesn’t have to be in writing. We can record a telephone conversation or an in-person discussion with that 90-year-old cousin and it’s just as effective as getting a shaky signature. The key is that we get informed consent — the form in which we record it is less important.

There are additionally some frequently asked questions added to the BCG website that clarify these changes. And those FAQs clarify that, before using any data from living people in any public form or forum, “Genealogists make a diligent effort to contact living individuals to discuss privacy options.” If we can’t get a response from a match despite our best efforts, then and only then can we disclose the data fully anonymized — stripped of all personally identifying details such as the match’s name and, often, the match’s parents’ and even grandparents’ names. And, of course, because the match’s identity is often important to our conclusions, we understand that “Publishing anonymized DNA test results of a non-responsive match is a strategy of last resort.”6

In total, the changes should make the ethics of using DNA evidence clearer.

They don’t change, one bit, the requirement to use it right.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “BCG modifies DNA privacy rules,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 18 Oct 2020).


  1. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville, TN : 2018), 32.
  2. Revised Standard 57,” Board for Certification of Genealogists ( : accessed 18 Oct 2020.
  3. Ibid., “Genealogist’s Code of Ethics,” and see particularly the section “To protect people who provide DNA samples.”
  4. Ibid., DNA FAQ, “Relating to Standard 57: What is the difference between private sharing and publishing?”
  5. Guidelines for Sharing Information with Others,” National Genealogical Society ( : accessed 18 Oct 2020).
  6. DNA Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ),” Board for Certification of Genealogists ( : accessed 18 Oct 2020), emphasis added.
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