Tuesday, January 13, 2015

DNA Testing Without Relative Matching

Image Source: Office of Biological and Environmental Research 
of the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science.
I've seen several people on social networks and on blogs question why, when they email one of their potential cousin matches on a DNA testing site, they don't get a response.

There can be reasons one wants the test, but doesn't want to communicate with relatives.

For example:

Let's say you've recently adopted a child. You either know the names of the birth parents, or you don't; you've either traced their ancestry back a few generations, or you haven't. You'd like to test their DNA to see the composition of their ethnicity, however, you have no interest whatsoever in communicating with close family members of the birth parents, and furthermore, you have no clue who the birth parents told about the existence of the child and their decision to give the child up. You feel it's certainly not your place to get involved in that. You can imagine the shock of seeing an unknown "match" that indicates a close Parent/Child or Aunt/Nephew relationship, and don't want to put a stranger through that shock

I've been reading the Privacy statements for 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA and Ancestry seeing what provisions there are to have one's DNA tested, get an ethnicity breakdown, but not participate in the relative matching services. (Italics indicate direct quotes from their privacy guidelines.)
  • For 23andMe their "DNA Relatives" feature is Opt-In.
23andMe gives you the ability to share information with other individuals who have 23andMe accounts through (i) our community forums, (ii) relative finding features (e.g., “DNA Relatives”), and (iii) other sharing features (such information is “User Content”). Please refer to your settings. You may be required to opt-in to some of this sharing, but some features require an opt-out. For example, we provide the ability to opt-in to our ancestry DNA Relatives Database where your information will be shared with potential relative matches. Alternatively, if you were participating in the DNA Relatives Database you may opt-out or change the visibility of your profile data by visiting your Settings. Also, please note that certain types of your User Content may be viewable by other 23andMe users and once posted, you may not be able to delete or modify such content.
  • For FamilyTreeDNA the privacy policy states that they only share Contact Information with matches if both sign a release statement.
If the matching program finds a genetic match between you and another person in the database and you have each signed the release form Family Tree DNA will notify you via e-mail.
If a genetic match is found between you and another individual who enters the library at some time in the future, both will be given the information that a potential match is in the database provided that BOTH of you have signed the release form. Only where both parties have signed the release form will we release contact information concerning the separate parties to the other party. In this way, all persons in the database will have the right to decide if they want to contact their genetic match(es).

For users that signed the release form, Family Tree DNA may show your ethnicity breakdown to your genetic matches. However, you can opt-out of sharing your ethnicity and keep your results private with only you and the administrators of projects to which you belong by modifying your privacy settings here.

I participated in the Autosomal Transfer of my Ancestry.com DNA test results. I don't recall filling out the release form that they link to in their Privacy Statement. I suspect I checked boxes stating that I was consenting, or there was language that by performing the transfer I was consenting, as I am able to email matches, and they are able to email me. It is possible I filled out an online form without remembering doing so.

However, in the account settings, under "Family Finder Matches & Email Notifications" the option is provided:

Make the following DNA matches available on my Family Finder matches page and show my profile/contact information to those matches. Also notify me about new matches by email (Immediate, Close and Distant only). "Yes" enables all of the above. "No" disables all of the above.

It sounds like by selecting "No" I would disappear as a match from those relatives. And the option lets you choose different settings for Immediate, Close, Distant, and Speculative. These labels are defined here.

Immediate means Parent/Child, Siblings, Aunt/Uncle
Close means 1st and 2nd Cousins
  • At Ancestry.com it appears you can't remove yourself from the matches list. Their privacy statement indicates
Throughout your AncestryDNA™ experience, we want to ensure that you are comfortable with your settings and how much content you wish to make public. Below are some ways that you can control the privacy settings of your AncestryDNA account and DNA results pages.

1. Username: You can choose how your name appears to your DNA matches...
2. Ethnicity profile: You can decide how much of your complete genetic ethnicity profile you want to make viewable to your DNA matches...
3. Family tree: You can choose whether or not to link your DNA test to an Ancestry.com family tree...
4. Deleting your test results: If you desire, you can choose to delete your DNA test results...

While this provides adequate privacy and security since you can use an anonymous username, not share your ethnicity profile, or your family tree, and refuse to respond to any messages that matches send you through the Ancestry message system, it doesn't seem to provide a way to hide you as a match completely so that you don't get any of those messages.


It appears that among the three major DNA services, 23andMe or FamilyTreeDNA are the choices for someone who wants solely to find out their ethnicity breakdown without the Relative-Matching services.

But none of them provide a complete 'cloaking' mechanism that would allow you to see all matches, but wouldn't let those matches see you. FamilyTreeDNA does offer "partial cloaking." One could say "no" to "Immediate" and perhaps "close" relatives and "Yes" to "distant" and "speculative." This would allow the person in the above speculated situation to communicate with more distant relatives, but remain hidden from the closer ones. However, it's not difficult to imagine a 3rd or 4th cousin telling the immediate or close match you're hiding from that you appear on their list as sharing the same chromosomes. So to truly prevent that from happening the person in the hypothetical situation mentioned would have to hide from all relatives.

This is just one example of why someone might not be responding to your messages. (Even if they are at a service where they could hide their results, they might not realize it.) There are probably other reasons, too.

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