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FamilyTreeDNA updated terms of service what you need to know

This is just a very quick blog update regarding FamilyTreeDNA’s updated terms of service.

The background

I was quoted on the New York Times website in an article recently, after FamilyTreeDNA announced they were allowing law enforcement agencies to use their service for criminal cases. I came to the journalist’s attention after a twitter thread I made.

My actual response to the journalist was pretty longwinded, and also in part trying to educate him a little about how it actually works. Not sure if I succeeded there, but in the end I was very happy with the quote he picked out.

I’ve been pretty vocal about the fact that I have no issues with law enforcement agencies using genetic genealogy to identify John and Jane Does (it’s after all what allows the DNA Doe Project to do their work), nor to give that law enforcement agency clues to the identities of perpetrators of serious crime such as murders and rapes. I know some people don’t agree with me here, and that is fine.

However, I do think privacy rights are important, and that means that consumers should have notice in advance of these kinds of changes happening and have the ability to opt out, preferably without losing the service that they originally paid for. There were also serious GDPR issues with what FamilyTreeDNA did which affected EU users which they needed to address (frankly, as someone in the EU, I won’t go into these because GDPR has been a pain in the posterior since it was being implemented and of no benefit whatsoever, as far I can see!)

Note – these same arguments don’t really apply to Gedmatch, the notice they provide is really, really, clear, and it’s not a paid service, so the choice a person has is to use it or don’t (or use your kit in research mode so no one else can see it).

FamilyTreeDNA’s updated terms of service

FamilyTreeDNA announced new terms of service yesterday and they go a very long way to addressing the issues consumers had. The primary points are these:

  • Law enforcement agencies and their agents must register accounts under a special process to participate in the DNA matching program. Permission to use the service will only be granted to either “identify the remains of a deceased individual, [or] to identify the perpetrator of a homicide, sexual assault or abduction“. FamilyTreeDNA are requiring stringent case information to ensure these are the only kits uploaded.
  • Law enforcement kits/agencies cannot join group projects
  • All users can now opt out of law enforcement matching, without losing access to matching entirely.
  • Important: if you are an EU customer and your FamilyTreeDNA account was created before 12 March 2019, you have automatically been opted out of law enforcement matching as a result of GDPR rules.
  • FamilyTreeDNA has also created a ‘Citizen’s Panel’ to consult with about any future changes, which is made up of Katherine Borges, Kenyatta Berry, Roberta Estes, Maurice Gleeson, Tim Janzen, Amy McGuire, and Bob McLaren. These are names that are very well respected in the field, so I think this is a very good move by FamilyTreeDNA.
  • FamilyTreeDNA has also created a FAQ for consumers about law enforcement matching which you can view here.

So what does this mean for the consumer?

If you are in the US (or indeed anywhere BUT the EU)

You are currently opted in to Law Enforcement matching. If you’re happy with that, you need do nothing further. If you want to be opted out, head to your account settings (you’ll find it under your name in the top right hand corner of your screen), hit the link for ‘privacy & sharing’, and you’ll find the option about half way down.

FamilyTreeDNA law enforcement matching opt in

Note: If you manage DNA kits for anyone else, it would be sensible to opt out those kits until you have had a conversation with them to ask what they would like to do. It should really be for the DNA provider to decide whether they want their DNA to be used in this way.

If you are in the EU

You should have been automatically opted out of law enforcement matching. Now, you may not want to be involved in it anyway, and that’s fine. But, you may not have strong feelings about it (or maybe, like me, you are all for it), but might be thinking “well, I’m in the EU, I’m not American, I don’t see how my DNA would be of any use to law enforcement anyway.Wrong, my friend.

A lot of US folk have strong European ancestry, and have family in the EU within just a few generations. If I remember correctly, clues to the Golden State Killer’s identity in part came from matches which indicated British ancestry, and at least one DNA Doe Project case has British ancestry as well. Do not assume just because you aren’t aware of any American links that your DNA might not be key one day. Also, just because it’s primarily US cases right now, I don’t see any reason why other countries will not use this kind of technology in the future, particularly as more of its citizens test.

To read the full updated terms of service, click here. The updated privacy policy is available here. You might also want to take a look at my privacy article, which, while it doesn’t focus on FamilyTreeDNA in this context (indeed, FamilyTreeDNA were not working with law enforcement when I wrote it), it does explain some of the issues to be aware of.

Finally, it would be silly for me not to mention that FamilyTreeDNA currently has a sale on for St Patricks Day, with their familyfinder test set at $59 for a limited time only. If you’ve been on the fence whilst this situation played out, now is the time to buy! And don’t forget to pick up my free DNA Checklist to help you on your way once your results arrive.

A quick guide to FamilyTreeDNA's updated terms of service announced 12 March 2019, explaining new opt-in process to Law Enforcement Matching. Particularly relevant to EU users of FamilyTreeDNA!