DNA and Privacy, Ethics, and Standards

There was lots of news and discussion last month (May 2018) in genetic genealogy circles about DNA and privacy, ethics, and standards. So I thought I’d choose that for the topic of this month’s blog post.



GDPR: The latest news regarding Privacy is GDPR. GDPR = General Data Protection Regulation. It’s a new law passed by the European Union, but it has the potential to affect all genealogists. The simplest way to look at it is to understand that it protects our privacy and ensures consent in a more consistent manner. Many websites we visit may now have a clickable banner for us to acknowledge that the site uses cookies, and to give us an opportunity to view the site’s privacy policy. (DNAsleuth now does, as well.)  Some mailing lists are contacting us to invite us to ‘opt-in’ again, now that better audits are in place.

We may also see a very few websites going dark (Y-search, for example), because the effort for those to comply with GDPR is too intensive for the resources available.

I think GDPR is a good thing, not a bad thing, although the documentation is massive and not user-friendly. ISOGG wiki is always my first place to look when I have questions. And yes, they do have a page on it: check out ISOGG wiki on GDPR. If you admin a surname project, their page here is helpful.

Thomas MacEntee’s Abundant Genealogy blog has a very readable post What is GDPR and why does it matter for genealogy and family history with sections on how it affects you if you are a genealogist, or a genealogy society, if you’re a blogger or if you have a genealogy website, etc.

Take a deep breath and don’t panic. For nearly all of us, it’s not a big deal.

GSK aka the Golden State Killer case. This emerged over a month ago, with the news that one of our favorite DNA tools (GEDmatch.com) was used to identify close matches to the Golden State Killer, and consequently led to an arrest. This has stirred lots of debate within our genetic genealogy community. Others have presented the issues better than I ever could, so I’ll just share a few relevant blogs for your information.


This isn’t new, but it is so important that it bears repeating. Everyone doing DNA testing should be familiar with the Genetic Genealogy Standards. These guidelines, published in 2015, aren’t standards for testing companies; they are for you and me. In particular, we should be aware of ethical considerations when testing and recruiting others to test. I paraphrase some examples here:

Number 3. The person whose DNA is tested owns those results, not the person who paid for the kit. The tester’s decisions are final on whether the information should be public or private, deleted, etc.

Number 8. We do not share the identity of a tester or his/her matches without their permission. This could apply, for example, to screen captures, where we should obscure names or kit #s before sharing them in a presentation or blog or Facebook post, etc. unless we have their okay.

Number 12. Unexpected results. We must be aware—and be sure people we recruit to test are aware—that DNA tests may reveal close relatives we didn’t know about.



BCG, Genealogy Standards

Every genealogist should read the slim book Genealogy Standards, published by the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) in 2014. Yes, some content is specific to genealogists who write client reports or give presentations. But most of it is applicable and essential to all family historians who want to be sure their research conclusions are valid.

The “Genetic Genealogy Standards” mentioned in the prior section includes some standards, as well as the ethical considerations mentioned above. Now the BCG is in the process of updating their iconic Genealogy Standards (which applies to genealogy in general) to include standards for incorporating DNA as a type of evidence.

Here are some of my initial observations:

  • Standard 2 now includes wording to support the idea that if we are including DNA from testers as part of our evidence of kinship to prove a common ancestor, we should include the evidence for the lineage of each of those testers back to the common ancestor. (If we don’t, and a DNA match’s tree is wrong, our conclusion may be wrong.)
  • Standard 17 currently describes the extent of “reasonably exhaustive research” and now includes DNA as a type of evidence to consider in deciding if the research has been “reasonably exhaustive”.
  • Standard 58 now includes genealogical charts among other means of presenting data (like tables and lists and maps), as such genealogical charts can be invaluable when depicting DNA evidence.
  •  There is also proposed new standard that encourages us to be specific on whether we are talking about “adoptive, biological, and other kinds of familial relationships.”

In addition, a short, new chapter has been created specific to using DNA as evidence, which applies to DNA in addition to all the more generic standards, which apply to all our research, with or without DNA. BCG has invited the public to review the draft updates and share our thoughts with them.

For more information, and links to the proposed updates and feedback process, I direct you to Debbie Wayne Parker’s excellent blog. See Debbie Parker Wayne, “DNA Analysis Standards,” Deb’s Delvings, 23 May 2018 (http://debsdelvings.blogspot.com/ : accessed 25 May 2018).  Here’s the link to the first of a proposed series of her posts on the subject: DNA Analysis Standards.

And there you have it! Genetic Genealogy is always evolving, and I’m grateful to our leaders who have helped explain these issues and encouraged dialogue, so that we all better understand privacy and consent, ethics, and standards in using DNA.


Ann Raymont (c) June 2018

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