On 5 October 2020, the trustees of the Board for Certification of Genealogists revised Standard 57 (respect for privacy rights) and the Genealogist’s Code of Ethics to allow private sharing of DNA match details. The changes also broaden the means by which a test taker’s informed consent can be shown when their DNA data is made public. These changes are effective immediately and will be incorporated into a future update of Genealogy Standards, 2nd edition.[1] Though applicable to all genealogists, the changes respond to concerns about the use of genetic evidence in initial and renewal applications for credentialing. The trustees also approved answers to a series of frequently asked questions (FAQs) about Standard 57, two other DNA-related standards, and other issues involving the use of DNA test results in genealogical work. For the newly revised Genealogist’s Code of Ethics, see here. Following is the revised Standard 57 in its entirety:

Standard 57 (Revised). Respect for privacy rights. When publishing DNA test results, genealogists respect the privacy of living people. Genealogists refrain from publishing information derived from DNA test results that may cause harm. Genealogists publish personally identifying information about living test takers only with their informed consent. Assembled research results acknowledge living test-takers’ consents for publishing their data shown therein. [See glossary for definition of DNA TEST RESULTS].

[1] Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG), Genealogy Standards, 2nd ed. (Nashville, Tenn.: Ancestry.com , 2019).

DNA Frequently Asked Questions

When two people share a DNA segment, they could have inherited it from common ancestors. Identifying those common ancestors begins broadly by considering all ancestors in each person’s pedigree as the shared DNA’s source. Correlation, analysis, and inferential reasoning systematically eliminate parts of the pedigree from consideration. Pedigree evaluation for both people is indispensable. Eliminating branches assures that you address the possibility of multiple common ancestors or inaccurate trees.

Standard 52 does not require documenting every parent-child connection on every ancestral line on every relevant match’s pedigree. The number of pedigrees requiring full pedigree evaluation depends on the research problem. Detailing selected pedigrees within a portfolio element is not always necessary. Citing online, publicly accessible, source-cited trees can suffice. If, however, an online tree includes anonymization, the applicant discloses those anonymized parent-child relationships within their BCG submission.

Standard 52 does not specify how to evaluate pedigrees. It asks genealogists to consider the variables of multiple common ancestral paths and pedigrees’ accuracy, depth, and completeness. Gaps in relevant pedigrees must be mitigated. A gap could be the source of shared DNA despite known common ancestors in compared pedigrees.

 

Some strategies to address issues in tree completeness include but are not limited to:

  • Autosomal DNA analysis techniques including clustering, genetic networks, chromosome mapping, visual phasing, and segment triangulation
  • Clearly articulated explanations justifying the discard of ancestral branches as irrelevant to the research question
  • Clearly articulated discussions of correlation of genetic matches from both sides of a common ancestral couple (assuming those parents do not share common ancestors.)

All scientific conclusions rest on the ability of others to access research data to verify or dispute a conclusion, which otherwise would resemble fiction. Standard 54 describes the level of detail necessary for others to verify or challenge genetic relationship conclusions. If readers cannot see details of shared DNA, they cannot verify the conclusion.

A researcher might use one of the following strategies to meet Standard 54:

  • Upload the data to a public website, with test takers’ informed consent.
  • Embed or append screenshots of data in a privately shared file.
  • Authors seeking publication of a case study may provide editors with access to match lists, depending on company terms of use. If editors verify the results, include this opinion in the publication. Authors encourage test takers to change shared passwords after editors complete their reviews.

Private sharing provides the ability to discuss details of living people with one person or within a small group of people who are subject to ethical guidelines prohibiting redisclosure. Private sharing is standard practice for supervisory relationships, credentialing, teaming, and scholarship in many professions. Privately sharing information about living people is common, for example, in ethical genealogists’ reports that identify, without permission, potential heirs, biological kin of adoptees, and relatives of service members unaccounted for from past conflicts.

Publishing implies dissemination and distribution to the public. Recorded lectures are publications requiring either informed consent of identified individuals or anonymizing. Similarly, lectures outside small closed groups require informed consent of identified living individuals or anonymizing.

Information widely available to the general public is not subject to privacy restrictions, although ethical considerations may affect even public information about a living person.

Submission of work products to BCG for credentialing is considered private sharing. If you are the DNA test taker and, thus, owner of the match list, you may provide details about your own matches without permission. However, if you use details from another living person’s match list, even if you manage that kit, BCG asks you to provide evidence of that person’s informed consent to disclose details of that match list to BCG judges. Email authorizations are sufficient. Authorizations are not included in the page count.

BCG accepts data about deceased people and requires neither permission from heirs nor documentation verifying the death.

You need permission to publish if data such as the amount and location of shared autosomal DNA, Y-STR values, or mitochondrial mutations is shared together with the test-taker’s name, account name, or other personally identifying information such as names of parents, grandparents, or other close biological relatives.

It is always best to contact living individuals to determine their wishes about publication. This can lead to one of four results:

  1. The person gives permission to publish their DNA data together with personally identifying details such as their name and parents’ names.
  2. The person gives permission to publish their DNA data but wishes to be anonymized. This anonymization may extend to the individual’s parents, and in some cases, grandparents.
  3. The person declines permission to publish anything about them or their DNA. If so, we honor and respect their wishes. We might seek evidence from a comparable test taker.
  4. The person does not respond. In this case, we may publish their DNA data but not personally identifying details such as their name. It may also be prudent to anonymize information about their parents or grandparents, even if those individuals are deceased. Publishing anonymized DNA test results of a non-responsive match is a strategy of last resort.

The decision about how much family information to omit depends on the unique case. Genealogists employ common sense and empathy to make the decision.

Matches might not notice messages sent through the testing company’s communication systems, requiring further work to contact non-responsive matches. If the match is not uniquely identified, researching trees or surname lists they have posted might identify them. Profiles might give details like location and age. A shared match who knows the non-responsive match might facilitate direct communication. Obituaries might name the match or other living relatives. Public databases, social media, and Google searches can help. Responses are more likely through social media. Search for an address or phone number.

Privacy considerations apply to lectures using genetic evidence. Genealogists make a diligent effort to contact living individuals to discuss privacy options. If the individual provides informed consent to share their details for education purposes, the lecturer acknowledges it in some combination of visual aids, accompanying educational materials, and oral statement. As with other types of work, a lecturer honors an individual’s privacy wishes. Lecturers may anonymize the person and present the DNA data of non-responsive matches. Sometimes, it may be prudent to extend the anonymization to the living person’s parents or grandparents, even if they are deceased. No permission is needed to anonymize or blur information when screen images are used to teach, including about testing company tools.

Because genetic evidence can provide indirect evidence of a specific relationship, proof arguments are the best choice for presenting conclusions about a genetic relationship. They detail the evidence and reasoning supporting the conclusion.