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DNA, Genealogical Research and Privacy

Building your family tree is a painstaking process, traditionally comprised of careful historical research. Using advances in science, direct to consumer DNA testing is gaining tractions as a new genealogical tool. You, the consumer, are sent a kit to collect a sample; the company will sequence and compare your results to those within their database. The idea is to match you to your genetic relatives, enabling the discovery of missing links and the ability to close doors on cold leads.

When a company can offer a quick and easy way to discover your heritage, it’s a tempting idea. That’s not to say one shouldn’t use new technologies to discover genealogy, or that there isn’t a place for DNA testing in the new research landscape. However, just as the expanding web comes with a heightened awareness of a long and lingering digital footprint, using a DNA testing service should carry at least equal caution.

What happens when you give away your DNA for testing? Do you know where it will end up, who will see it, or how it will really be used? An Alaska class action lawsuit against Family Tree DNA claims that the company posted personal information on very public websites, in violation of state law.

According to the complaint of Michael Cole, Family Tree DNA publishes the results of its genetic tests on a publicly available website, not just their customer site, as he believed. This additional access on their own site and that of an Ancestry.com subsidiary is what Cole claims is “unbeknownst to and without the consent of its customers.”

The suit claims “Family Tree’s practice of releasing information about its consumers’ genetic makeup without their permission, carries serious and irreversible privacy risks and violates Alaska’s Genetic Privacy Act.”

As with any piece of personal information, caution and good judgment should be exercised. Read the small print to learn how your DNA will be used and shared, as well as who may have access to it.

Source, Kyla Asbury, “Alaska class action lawsuit says Family Tree DNA posted info on public websites,” May 16, 2014.

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