Here we go again. I try not to focus on the (im)morality and (lack of) ethics of this company, primarily as it takes precious time away from my research, however there are some things that just can’t go without being shared/discussed. Today I have two such topics.
As you’ll notice the last two posts focused on recent Terms of Service (TOS) changes as well as the potential repercussions of these, even in abstract, today I was blindsided by an article dated 7Sep2021. Then, in trying to respond to a post by a FB user on how they didn’t see how Ancestry (or by design, any other genealogy company) wouldn’t be interested in, nor capable of, monetizing his family information, I did a quick google keyword search using Data Mining Genealogy in an attempt to find some article, fact, etc that would back up my personal belief. I’m almost sorry I did, but at the same time my long held personal beliefs have been vindicated. By a film.
Film: Please please please, support this woman’s film! $5. It’s a really good, thought-provoking documentary on Ancestry. The director is Professor Julia Creet. Here is her Faculty Profile at the University of Victoria (Canada) and her website and her blog, which I can tell just from a quick glance at the article titles is going to be my new go to! and the title Data Mining the Deceased: Ancestry and the Business of Family. You can rent it for 3 days for $4.99, or purchase for $9.99. There’s also a ‘gift’ purchase option. It’s a total of 57 minutes and worth every since second. I watched it today, and some aspects I went “I knew it I knew it I knew it”, others almost made me ill.
Julia Creet’s blog, has a post from TheConversation.com, dated 1Mar2020, entitled Home genealogy kit sales plummet over data privacy concerns. It references that both Ancestry and 23andMe layed off staff as “a result of a steep drop in sales.” Privacy issues, among others, appear to be a main component of the drop in sales, according to Creet’s observations.
First, let’s discuss the recent article entitled Competing class actions over sale of Ancestry.com’s DNA line awaits transfer ruling as published by Madison – St. Clair Record. In summary, the class action lawsuit(s) claim Blackstone Group, the equity firm that purchased AncestryDNA’s DNA business last year (for a whopping $2.4 Billion, yes with a B), “obtained confidential information without consent when it bought Ancestry.com’s DNA business” and alleges “ Blackstone sought to capitalize on a massive database by sharing information with affiliates if not other third parties“.
One of the attorneys alleges and claims in the suit he filed:
“He alleges that Blackstone disclosed to the Securities and Exchange Commission that it would package and sell data from companies it acquired.“
“Plaintiffs never consented, agreed or gave permission, written or otherwise, to Ancestry to transfer their genetic testing and information derived from genetic testing to a third party,”
While this type of conversation is only the beginning, it is certainly something to take into consideration when doing these types of tests, with any company but Ancestry’s name keeps popping up in lawsuits where their morality is in question.
To test my theory, using keywords: class action lawsuit and X company name I thought I’d see how each company compares to Ancestry.
23andMe: it appears they were sued in 2013, with because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claimed their health kits “failure to show that the technology is supported by science.“ It appears in 2017, the suit was settled, and per The Legal Genealogist blog, who I’ve cited before, settled the claim and now complies with FDA regulations (since you can still purchase these tests in 2021).
MyHeritage: In 2018, it appears there had been a data breach and therefore the company was sued, and concerns over the time/effort to repair the ability to breach their site. A copy of the filling is at the bottom of ClassAction.org‘s 12Sept2018 announcement.
GEDMatch was compelled by a Florida judge, to give access to law enforcement to it’s full database by issuing a warrant, according to the 5Nov2019 article in The New York Times. The implications here compared to all the companies, is GEDMatch and FTDNA appear to have been the first targeted by LEO’s because anyone can upload data to their sites. Here’s another article from The Legal Genealogist from 3Feb2019 over FTDNA’s decision to open their site to enable LEO’s access, which occurred before the TOS were changed. 23andMe and Ancestry are both limited to having to purchase the tests from them, and no upload of raw dna (data files) by either company is allowed. They however have been compelled by warrants to release data to LEO’s. If LEO’s are given routine access (even by warrant), this could potentially turn “all genetic databases into law enforcement databases“.
Who knew. There’s a transparency report that the companies publish annually. The NYT article links to 23andME’s report beginning 2015 to 16Aug2021 (when I accessed the site). Here is the link for Ancestry.com’s 2021, which is for 1Jan to 30Jun2021, and links at the bottom of the page for past TR’s. Of note, they not only can access DNA databases, but also non-DNA information for crimes such as “credit card misuse, fraud, and/or identity theft”, and of course criminal investigations. I ran through each of the TR’s linked, and it appears the ones that were most responded to have to do with credit card misuse, fraud and/or identity theft. I think there was one that ‘might have’ eventually been given DNA access to but ‘at the time of this writing’ had claimed information had not been given.
FTDNA (aka FamilyTreeDNA) had a class action lawsuit in 2014, according to Top Class Actions.com alleging FTDNA (who’s since been sold) shared DNA information with a website who is a subsidiary of Ancestry.com (can’t quite tell who the company is…stay tuned). It looks as if some of the standing has to do with Alaskan state law, Genetic Data Protection, and yet it was filed in California court (as it turned Federal since there was another plantiff that joined the suit, who resided in another state- making it a federal issue). It looks like the court denied Gene by Gene’s motion for dismissal 30Jun2017, but I don’t want to read (lol) the suit. Here is a summary from CaseText.com I can’t find a final settlement, so maybe it hasn’t yet happened? Anyone know?
Now, let me look up Ancestry.com.
Dec 2020: Privacy over public use of Yearbook photos. While Ancestry did win (by means of dismissal) in 2021, it was still sued. One of the court findings was “Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provided immunity for Ancestry since it was “publishing third-party content provided to it for publication”.
According to the 16Jun2021 Reuters.com article, “An Ancestry spokesperson said the company is pleased with the decision.” Of course they were!
Jun 2020: Ancestry’s automatic renewal of memberships without subscriber’s permission. $250 million. This one is complicated, but has to do with free trials, subscriptions never requested, only because the credit card is in the account from having purchased a DNA kit directly from their site etc. One thing I know firsthand is that if you attempt to remove your credit card number from your account, you must go through Corporate Customer Service and it can take up to (or in my cases, over) 30 days. Ancestry was fighting for arbitration (again, TOS TOS TOS!) so I’m not sure where this went/is going… but ‘watch this space’.
TIP: If you want to just buy a DNA kit, purchase it from Amazon.com. (This link goes to the AncestryDNA Store. Do not buy from any other ‘store’ than this one.) That way you’re still purchasing directly from the company but the credit card information is under your control. If you use the site with subscriptions, I recommend getting loadable credit cards from your local drugstore or grocery, like CVS, Walgreens, etc.
2019: “Misleading’ customers about DNA data per BloombergLaw.com, but it’s a subscription site, so I’m at a loss for more details.
27Jun2019: “Ancestry.com Shared Private Health Info of Thousands: Suit” per Law360. If I can find more, I’ll post.
5Jun2018: Here’s an article regarding the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigating “DNA companies, such as 23andMe, and Ancestry.com over handling of personal info and genetic data, and how they share that info with third parties” per FastCompany.com
May 2018: And in a weird turn of events, 23andMe sues Ancestry for patent infringement. Maybe this is the ‘misleading the market’ discussed in the 2019 suit? The article is interesting and also discusses Ancestry suing other companies for the use of the word (lowercase) ancestry, since (uppercase) Ancestry is a trademarked logo. Hmmm… I wonder where this one went?
2Feb2018: Here’s a law office write up on ‘DNA ownership”, entitled People can lose DNA ownership rights for themselves and their relatives with Ancestry.com per Law Offices of Sadaka & Associates.
As a reminder: Here’s the Ancestry TOS, effective 3Aug2021.
I think I’ve made my point in terms of ethics. While no one company is 100% blameless nor without some mode of immorality, you can see who the leader of this race is.
This company makes my head hurt. Can I please just go back to researching?