Monday, May 11, 2015

AncestryDNA Negative Publicity

There were two stories released last week that did not show AncestryDNA in a positive light.

On 1 May 2015, the Electronic Frontier Foundation published an article recalling an old news story published back in March. And while this is old news, I didn’t write about it back then, so let me do so now. The New Orleans Advocate published a story titled “New Orleans Filmmaker Cleared in Cold-Case Murder; False Positive Highlights Limitations of Familial DNA Searching.” That’s a mouthful, unlike the cheek swap police gave Michael Usry.

Idaho Falls police were investigating a murder. They searched the Y-DNA database of the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation for a match to DNA found at the scene of the murder.

Search page for the Y-DNA database of the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation

They found one.

This is a representative result from the Sorenson database, not Usry's.

They obtained a court order requiring, the current owner of the Sorenson database, to identify the subject of the test sample. That eventually led them to Michael Usry. Last December Idaho Falls police showed up at his door with a court order and a cheek swab. In January, he received word that he was not a match to the DNA found at the crime scene. But it was a nerve racking ordeal.

I’ll let you read the article for the complete story. It quotes our own Judy G. Russell, the Legal Genealogist, who expresses concern about the implications of this story. See her complete take, “Big Easy DNA: Not So Easy,” on her blog.

Let me offer one clarification to the story. I’m doubtful that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called the Mormon Church in the article, sponsored a project to give DNA samples to Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation. To be sure, there are numerous connections between the two. Sorenson Molecular was founded and financed by wealthy Church member, James L. Sorenson. It was started at Brigham Young University, which is owned by the Church. It was the subject of a news story in the Church News, an official publication of the Church. (See “Unlocking DNA.” The article states that “The foundation has no connection with the Church.”) I gave my sample to Sorenson at a meeting of a local genealogical society held monthly inside one of the Church’s buildings. Maybe there was support of Sorenson’s project by individual Church leaders, but it sounds uncharacteristic for the Church to have officially sponsored this project.

Let me return now to the May Day article resurrecting this story, “How Private DNA Data Led Idaho Cops on a Wild Goose Chase and Linked an Innocent Man to a 20-year-old Murder Case.” The article shouts “May Day! May Day!” over possible privacy issues surrounding DNA databases. This article contains additional detail not found in the Advocate article. I assume they did further research, including talking to Usry. But it also makes claims at odds with the Advocate article. Judy Russell addresses these discrepancies in her article, “Facts matter!

To be sure, there are privacy concerns. I’d like to see them addressed. I’m still upset that was able to buy my DNA sample from Sorenson. But it doesn’t constructively further the discussion to play loose with the facts.

The second negative story concerning AncestryDNA concerns its spit-test alternative to cheek swabs. Reuters ran a one paragraph story saying that is being sued by DNA Genotek, a provider of DNA test kits. They allege that reverse-engineered their test kits and created ones of their own, all this in breach of the agreements between the two. Reuters invites readers to read the complete story on their subscription website.

A PDF of the complaint on the RPX Corporation website contains additional information. DNA Genotek alleges violation of a DNA NDA AND patent infringement. (Sorry; I couldn’t resist acronym mania.) AncestryDNA bought more than 300,000 kits from DNA Genotek, starting in early 2012. The terms and conditions of the sales prevented AncestryDNA from reverse-engineering DNA Genotek’s kits or improving them without giving the improvements back to them. DNA Genotek alleges that AncestryDNA has done just that and has, additionally, infringed on DNA Genotek patents. DNA Genotek is asking the court to make AncestryDNA stop selling its kits and compensate DNA Genotek for actual damages. They are asking the court to award triple the normal damages because they think AncestryDNA has infringed their patents willfully.

Those charges are nothing to spit at.


  1. Groan, (for the last sentence). lol

  2. I wish I hadn't used Ancestry for my DNA. I received the kit as a gift and sent it in. Thinking DNA is DNA, I was surprised I couldn't use the results for Myheritage where my family tree is. Now this news comes up.

  3. I 'donated' to Sorenson. Sample was only partially processed. My brother and grandson's samples were never process and when I enquired, I was told they all went to Ancestry. Ancestry denied any association with Sorenson. As for LDS, I got my kits from my local LDS library. The kits were stacked on a table and all patrons were urged to take one and use it.

  4. I went to the site and found this notice:

    Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation
    We regret to inform you the site you have accessed is no longer available.

    Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF) was founded in 2000 with the philanthropic goal of helping connect mankind. It was the organization's goal through the sharing of genetic data, to show how the similarities we possess are greater than our differences. The site was created in the spirit of openness and it is in that spirit AncestryDNA purchased the DNA assets from SMGF to further its mission and support the intentions on which it was founded. Unfortunately, it has come to our attention the site has been used for purposes other than that which it was intended, forcing us to cease operations of the site.

    We understand the site has been a helpful resource for genealogists and plan to advance the original vision of Mr. Sorenson by continuing to develop tools like ethnicity estimates, matching, DNA Circles, and New Ancestor Discoveries, which are connecting mankind. There are no plans to destroy the DNA that was contributed, but have no plans to make the service available in the future.

    Ancestry is committed to helping people understand their family's unique story and through AncestryDNA, make new discoveries about their family's past and cultural roots. Like the original founders of SMGF, Ancestry also believes one can have a better understanding of who we are and where we come from. Through our continued work on family history and DNA, we will encourage the same mission of SMGF in hopes of making the world a smaller, more relatable place.


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