What Does AncestryDNA Do With My Data?

By Jack SteinLast Updated June 24, 2020
Photo Courtesy: Ancestry/YouTube

What Does AncestryDNA Do With My Data?

DNA tests are an increasingly popular way for people to learn about their genealogy and family history, and AncestryDNA is one of the most popular, with over 14 million test kits sold since 2012. These DNA tests are fun and informative, but have you ever thought about what companies like Ancestry do with your DNA?

AncestryDNA says that they keep your identity protected and store your data in a secure location. They do take steps to ensure that your data is safe, but there are risks to submitting your information to any company. Here’s a look at how these tests work and what happens to your data when you submit your DNA for a test.

How Do You Take a DNA Test?

To collect your DNA, AncestryDNA sends customers a kit that includes a plastic tube. While taking care to follow any additional instructions provided, simply take a swab of your saliva, put it in a tube, mix it with a solution that stabilizes the DNA in your saliva and return it to AncestryDNA in the included prepaid envelope. In a few weeks, AncestryDNA emails you the results of your DNA analysis.

How DNA Tests Work

So what happens to your DNA when you submit the test? How do scientists determine your ethnicity from a sample that came from inside your mouth? AncestryDNA breaks down your DNA sample into a thousand of what they call "windows." Each "window" looks at over 700,000 fragments of your DNA.

Photo Courtesy: Ancestry/YouTube

The scientists at AncestryDNA compare the code in your DNA "windows" to historical samples and public databases of DNA from different groups of people all around the globe. If your DNA matches certain fragments of DNA that are known to be unique to a given group of people, then some of your ancestors were probably members of that group. AncestryDNA is constantly refining its methodology, so you may receive updates to your DNA information from time to time.

How Does Ancestry Protect Your Data?

AncestryDNA has a detailed statement of how it protects your privacy on its website, and it takes specific measures to protect the DNA samples that you and other customers submit. It stores your DNA data in a protected database with multiple layers of security, and your physical DNA sample remains in a facility with limited access and 24-hour security. The laboratories that perform your DNA analysis do not have your personal information when they test your DNA sample. AncestryDNA also does not comply with information requests from law enforcement unless forced to do so by a warrant or other valid legal process, and it advocates for customer privacy in the event that it is made to turn over any data to law enforcement.

Photo Courtesy: Ancestry/YouTube

Federal law protects your DNA as well if you live in the United States. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) statute makes it illegal for most employers or health insurance providers to acquire DNA data for the purposes of discrimination.

The Risks of Submitting Your DNA

While Ancestry DNA strives to keep your DNA and the data that it contains secure, there are risks that you take when you submit your DNA for analysis. Like any company, Ancestry DNA could hypothetically have its data hacked and compromised. When signing up for AncestryDNA, you’re also given the option to anonymously share your DAN with various universities and companies for research purposes. Most people tend to opt-in.

Photo Courtesy: Ancestry/YouTube

The law doesn’t always protect your DNA. GINA excludes members of the military, federal employees, veterans and beneficiaries of the Indian Health Service, though internal policies for those organizations offer some protections. Federal authorities and other law enforcement agencies have used DNA from testing services in past investigations.

How You Can Protect Your Data

It’s worth noting that if you use AncestryDNA or one of the other large DNA testing companies, your data has a much greater chance of remaining safe than if you use a smaller company. Regardless of which company you choose, however, there are still measures you can take to protect your data. The biggest key to keeping your DNA data secure is reading the privacy policy thoroughly and only agreeing to uses you approve of — and not signing up if that isn’t possible. You can also report a company to the Federal Trade Commission if they violate the terms of its privacy policy.

Photo Courtesy: Ancestry/YouTube

Don’t forget that you have the right to delete your data from Ancestry DNA at any time. While you will lose access to your information, no one else will be able to see it, either. You can also revoke access for companies and nonprofit organizations to use your DNA anonymously, although any companies that already accessed it will still have that information. You can turn off the ability for other people to see if your DNA is close enough to theirs for you to be related.

However, if relatives share their DNA (on Ancestry.com or elsewhere) and their data somehow falls into the hands of law enforcement or another organization, they would hypothetically be able to identify if you are a relative of that person if they also have a sample of your DNA. This is how the infamous Golden State Killer was caught, although GEDmatch, the specific company that provided the data, has stated that it will no longer cooperate with law enforcement without a warrant.