There’s one section that she only briefly mentioned, though, that set off alarm bells. It’s this:
You will not use the information obtained from the DNA Services (including any downloaded DNA Data (defined in the Privacy Statement)) in whole, in part and/or in combination with any other database, for any medical, diagnostic, or paternity testing purpose, in any judicial proceeding, or for any discriminatory purpose or illegal activity.
It’s easy to get lost in that complex sentence, so let me simplify:
- You will not use AncestryDNA data for medical or diagnostic purposes.
- You will not use AncestryDNA data for paternity purposes.
- You will not use AncestryDNA data in judicial proceedings.
- You will not use AncestryDNA data to discriminate or for illegal purposes.
- You can’t get around these limitations by copying AncestryDNA data to another database.
So what does this mean for the average genealogist? Not much. Most of us aren’t using our genealogy DNA results to break the law or as medical tests. However, a few of us are using them in front of a judge, and many of us are using it to identify biological parents.
Lana (not her real name) discovered through a genealogy test that the man listed on her birth certificate was not her biological father. Using her DNA matches at AncestryDNA and MyHeritage, I easily identified her birth father and wrote a report explaining my logic. Her father as well as a half brother had both passed away, so traditional “paternity testing” was not an option.
Lana wanted to use that report to amend her birth certificate with the name of her birth father. That required a court order. In other words, she used my work in a judicial proceeding.
Now, this happened back in December, long before the new Terms and Conditions came into effect. But those T&C will have a chilling effect on what many of us professional genealogists can do going forward.
It seems pretty clear that, in the future, someone like Lana could not use her AncestryDNA matches to amend her birth certificate. What’s more, I might well be in violation of them myself for writing a legal declaration in the case.
The new Terms and Conditions also forbid “paternity testing purposes.” Interpreted broadly, this would mean that adoptees, the donor conceived, and others with unknown parents could not use AncestryDNA to identify their biological families. Of course, that’s why they’re testing in the first place!
Really, Ancestry? You can’t possibly mean that.
A stricter reading of that section would suggest that someone could use AncestryDNA to search for biological relatives, but once they found a suspected parent, both parent and child should test elsewhere for confirmation. That’s a workable solution, especially given the sale prices at MyHeritage.
However, precisely what is and isn’t allowed by Ancestry is unclear. I reached out to a contact there but have not received a reply.
The Elephant in the Room
Perhaps the most high profile use of genetic genealogy in recent years has been to identify criminals using forensic samples they leave behind. The DNA matching in those cases is most often done at GEDmatch and FamilyTreeDNA, but there are two scenarios that might involve AncestryDNA.
The first is when a key match to the suspect is adopted and the investigator needs to solve the adoptee’s parentage questions to advance the investigation. In that case, the investigator would most likely ask for access to the adoptee’s matches at AncestryDNA to help both of them achieve their goals.
In the second scenario, the investigator might “target test” potential cousins of the suspect to rule in or out specific lineages. Doing that test at AncestryDNA and then transferring to GEDmatch or FamilyTreeDNA would be the best strategy.
The conflict comes when the investigator uses the information gleaned from AncestryDNA in a judicial proceeding, like an application for a warrant or subpoena. (Genetic genealogy data isn’t admissible in trial court, but it can be used to justify a warrant from a judge.)
Personally, I don’t think the new Terms will have any effect on what law enforcement investigators actually do; it’ll just make them more secretive about it. And that, in turn, whittles away trust in the industry that’s already deeply shaken.
Yes, You Can Still Upload to GEDmatch
I’ve seen some consternation on social media that Ancestry is trying to prevent people from uploading to GEDmatch or from opting in to law-enforcement searches. I think that is a misreading of the Terms. If you upload to GEDmatch and someone else uses your data in a judicial proceeding, you haven’t violated the Terms.
What’s more, if the investigator doesn’t have an account at Ancestry, there’s no problem there, either. After all, Terms and Conditions aren’t law; they’re a contract between the company and the customer. Someone who is not a customer isn’t bound by them.
What’s The Worst They Can Do?
So what happens if someone violates the Terms? For most people, nothing; Ancestry will never know. But any case that sparks controversy—via negative press coverage, say, or an angry birth parent suing Ancestry—will almost certainly have repercussions.
Ancestry’s remedy when the Terms are broken is to suspend or terminate the offender’s account.
We may limit, terminate, or suspend your access to the Services without a refund if you breach or act inconsistently with the letter or spirit of these Terms, including the Ancestry Community Rules. In such a case, you will not be entitled to a refund of subscription fees or the purchase price of a DNA test kit.
And for most people, this would be an inconvenience at most. But for those of us who are deeply passionate about genetic genealogy and helping others solve mysteries, it would be devastating. It would mean the end of what we do.
Ancestry, can you please clarify?