Be aware of privacy settings on genealogy websites. November 5, 2023

Believe it or not, there are people out there who think it's wrong for adoptees and researchers to investigate their families.  They sometimes even get angry about it.  Some say it's an invasion of privacy.  What is so absurd about this is, those are the same people who do DNA tests and make their DNA public on genealogy sites.  Doing so is what allows others to investigate their family and yours.  They don't realize that even without DNA there's still an enormous amount of data out there that's public record.  Anyone can access it.  If you want to find something, chances are you can.  DNA just makes it a whole lot easier.  If you're one of those angry people, or someone who has something to hide, what the heck are you doing putting your DNA online?

When helping with a family search, I often have to contact DNA matches to get information.  Or, people will ask me, "Do you think it's ok for me to contact my matches?"  I always say, "Yes, they chose to make themselves visible and accept messages, so why not?"  Most of the time it works out well and people are very nice and helpful.  Sometimes they even ask me to help them with a mystery of their own.  They are often thrilled when I explain they have a relative they never knew about.  This isn't always the case though.  There are occasionally nasty people with things to hide.  I'll explain why those people are completely out of line and what is appropriate when it comes to this type of research.

This topic came about because I was helping an adoptee look for birth parents.  I discovered that not only was he adopted, his bio mother was also adopted.  I was able to find out who the bio mom's birth parents were, but that created a problem.  DNA can't tell me who adopted the bio mom, so there was no way to identify her.  Her name would have been changed when she was adopted.  Contacting a DNA match who might know about the family was the only way to go.  I found someone on the match list who I thought might know something.  This was my question and the response I got...

Question:  "Hello, I am helping one of your DNA matches look for his bio family.  I see you are matching to the Jones family from Texas.  You appear to be related to Martha and Edward Jones from Dallas.  Do you know of any adoptions in the family?"

She informed me that she did know about the adoption and said this...

Answer:  "Please stay out of this. You are crossing some boundaries.  You are making light of this as if we were some exhibit for you.  I will help him as much as I can.  Be careful before you blow up people's lives.  He will be the one that will get hurt.  I know this from personal experience.  Do not message me again."

Some people don't like their families investigated with DNA.

She clearly knows about some kind of horrible family situation and never wanted it to be revealed.  Do you think my question was out of line?  I'll give you three reasons why it is not.  First, I was asked to get information and was told I could contact anyone.  Second, when you sign up for a genealogy site, one of the first things you have to do is choose your privacy settings.  If you choose to ignore those settings, you are inviting contact.  And finally, I'm always careful what I say.  I find that wording things in the form of a question like I did here is a safe way to go.  She could have simply said, "Sorry, I really can't help you." Or, even better, don't display yourself on a match list if you don't want contact.

When that woman said I was "...making light of it as if we were some exhibit..." That couldn't be more wrong.  SHE was making HERSELF an "exhibit."  Why?  Because she chose to make her DNA public for everyone to see.  It's like saying "Here I am relatives, come say hello!"  I've had this type of thing happen more than once.  Another person said I was a "psychopath" for doing this kind of research.  Yet, these people choose to put their DNA data on display and allow contact.  It makes absolutely no sense.  If you're aware of any kind of family secret, why are you making yourself visible to help me and others uncover that secret?  Sometimes I'll contact someone who isn't aware of a family secret.  So, it's understandable that they aren't hiding.  If you're one of those people, you too should be aware, you could be contacted by someone unexpected.  I see it happen all the time.  This goes back to my earlier post about how people don't understand what DNA can do, DNA - Some People Just Don't Get It.

Keep your DNA private if you want to.

These genealogy websites are very good when it comes to privacy.  On Ancestry.com for example, you have the option to keep your results as private as you'd like.  You can choose to prevent anyone from knowing you are there.  Most people don't choose this setting.  The main purpose of the site is to show who you are related to so you can make contact with family.  It's no different than having a social media account.  What would be the purpose if no one knew you were there?  Another option you have is, family tree privacy.  You can choose to make your tree visible to everyone and you can choose to keep information about living people private if you want.  You can also choose to make the whole tree private, but allow people to ask you for access.  Or, you can hide your tree completely, so no one will even know you made a tree.  You can also choose to make a profile and display your age, location and information about yourself.  Or, you can simply leave it blank and no one will know anything about you.  You don't even have to display your name.  You can use any nickname, username, initials, fake name, or remain completely invisible.  So, there is no excuse for privacy issues on these genealogy sites.

If you're thinking about contacting a DNA match and you're wondering if it's ok to do so, that's your decision.  Since privacy options are available, I believe it's completely ethical to make contact with anyone and explain any situation you uncover.  Always be nice about it of course.  If you see a DNA match and realize their father is really a different guy than who is shown in their tree, you obviously don't want to say, "Hey! your father is wrong!"  Instead try asking questions like, "I noticed your family tree looks different than all my other DNA matches.  Would you be interested in figuring out how we're related?"

If you're one of the people who gets contacted, try to be understanding.  Be nice to the people who inquire about your family and want to learn about their true history.  That's what these websites are supposed to be about.  Remember, all those people on your match list are related to you.  Some may even be close relatives.  If you are not open to learning how people are related and you are not open to the possibility that a family secret could be revealed, keep yourself private.

Next, check out my online centimorgan calculator.

Comment Box is loading comments...