Monday, June 4, 2018

Experts Outline Ethics Issues With Use of Genealogy DNA to Solve Crimes

Experts Outline Ethics Issues With Use of Genealogy DNA to Solve Crimes 

I recently wrote about two different “cold cases” where murderers allegedly have been identified and arrested by using information found on the publicly-available genealogy DNA site at
(See and for my past articles.)
Privacy advocates and many others have since questioned the legality of using the information for law enforcement purposes. Admittedly, the information is publicly available for all to see. The genealogists who contributed the information did so willingly and presumably gave permission for the family DNA to be available to all. However, the relatives of the uploading genealogists may or may not have given permission for THEIR personal DNA information to be made available to the public. After all, it isn’t the DNA of any one individual; it is indeed the family’s DNA information. Not all family members have agreed to having that information made available to genealogists, law enforcement personnel, insurance companies, and worldwide hackers alike.
In the past, a court order was required for law enforcement personnel to legitimately invade the privacy of an individual or a family. The public information made available on GEDmatch seems to circumvent the legal protections of having a judge review the intent of law enforcement personnel. Are we giving up some of our liberties and privacy protections by making such information available?

There is also an issue of having law enforcement personnel use the information only for legitimate criminal investigations. One of the alleged murderers, commonly referred to as the Golden State Killer, reportedly was a uniformed police officer at the time he allegedly committed the rapes and murders. If GEDmatch had been available, would he have used the information on the web site to avoid identification and arrest? Indeed, GEDmatch theoretically could be used by murderers and others to evade capture.
You can find dozens of online article questioning the wisdom of making such information public. I’ll point to one such article by Carolyn Crist on the Reuters News Service web site at as one that describes the pros and cons of the issue. However, you can find many more articles about this issue by starting at any general-purpose Web search engine.
Perhaps the best quote of the article is, “‘Think carefully before uploading your genealogy data,’” said Benjamin Berkman, who heads the section on the ethics of genetics and new technologies at the National Institutes of Health’s Department of Bioethics in Bethesda, Maryland. ‘We’re not saying it’s unduly risky or a bad idea, but be comfortable with the idea that police may use your information to solve crimes before you sign up for these services.'”
My thanks to the many newsletter readers who sent me links to articles about these issues.


“Indeed, GEDmatch theoretically could be used by murderers and others to evade capture.”
Ok help me here. How could this be done? Even theoretically?
    —> Ok help me here. How could this be done? Even theoretically?
    Easily. First, any criminal who has some knowledge of DNA probably knows his own DNA information. He then could monitor GEDmatch to see if close matches are ever added, meaning that law enforcement could close in on him. It would be easy for him to decide when it was time to get out of town and go into hiding.
    Next, the criminal could monitor GEDmatch and any possible future services with similar publicly-identifiable data to see if a relative, even a distant relative, uploaded similar DNA information. It would then be easy for the criminal to contact the relative and convince him to remove the DNA information uploaded because of the risks associated with putting family DNA information visible to the public. The criminal might cite real risks (and there are several) or he might make up some story, inventing some plausible-sounding risks, and convince the relative to remove the listing. That would help the criminal to remain invisible to law enforcement.
    Are these risks probable? I doubt it. But they certainly are theoretically possible. I am sure there are other scenarios that I haven’t yet thought of.
    Next, there was an earlier story of a year or so ago where police used a publicly-available DNA database and they identified the wrong person! See for the details. The innocent man eventually was determined to not be the killer and was freed.
    There was a somewhat similar, even earlier, case in New Orleans where police did a DNA match on a publicly-available DNA database and then identified the wrong man. The “wrong man” apparently was a relative of the real murderer, not the culprit.
    All that is described at
    Law enforcement is never 100% accurate. Like most other human endeavors, occasional mistakes are made. Is that enough to prohibit the use of certain investigative tools? I don’t know. I’ll leave that to the lawyers and judges to decide.
    Liked by 1 person
    Please can you post a reliable source that says that the Oregon man was actually arrested. I am not aware of any such arrest, only that he and his daughter volunteered to help that police with the case.
    Dick, I don’t spot anything about a man being incarcerated in the links you provided. Do you have another link?
OK. I thought you were theoretically suggesting a criminal could manipulate the data at Gedmatch to avoid identification. I was having a hard time swallowing that idea.
I am not at all convinced that the arguments advanced so far are particularly cogent or well-considered. The discovery of relatives of criminals on GEDmatch is not evidence. The actual evidence that provides probable cause for an arrest is the genetic match detected between a sample from a crime scene and a sample recovered from an individual whose identity was suggested by GEDmatch. After probable cause is established and an arrest is made, there is still no “evidence” admissible in criminal proceedings unless the crime scene sample matches (by expert testimony) a sample obtained from the person who was arrested, under appropriate judicial approval. All of the safeguards for evidence and due process still apply, and will be determined by law and precedent.
The more important consideration, I think, has to do with the ethics of keeping and revealing secrets. The secrets of the criminal, when discovered, should clearly be revealed in the interest of society as a whole. The classic little book by Sissela Bok, Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation (1983) still applies, and is still required reading for any genealogist interested in contemporary families.
    nigelhuffingwaysmythe June 2, 2018 at 1:02 am
    Indeed. There are people who feel compelled to object to anything that law enforcement does on principle; that doesn’t mean they have logic to back up their gut feelings. I agree that objections presented so far fall short of “cogent and well-considered.”
    This, in particular, seems wrong: “it isn’t the DNA of any one individual; it is indeed the family’s DNA information.”
    No. It is the DNA of one individual, and none of my family members have a right to oblige me not to reveal my own DNA. Suggesting that because their DNA sequence might be revealed by my revealing my own it is wrong to reveal my own is like suggesting I not use my address—or, indeed, surname—because someone might guess they live there too or have a similar name.
Think about WWII Germany, when ALL Germans were required to carry books showing their genealogy back several generations to show that they had no Jewish blood. Imagine that today with your DNA or your relatives DNA database showing you did have Jewish blood, no hiding it, even if you didn’t know about it. Catching old murder suspects this way is fine, even a wonderful thing, but it is a slippery slope that could eventually lead to the Germany scenario. When you voluntarily give your DNA to Gedmatch or even the paid sites you are also giving your relatives DNA, even relatives you do not even know, and you are giving it without their permission, clearly an invasion of their privacy. This is definitely an ethics question the courts will have to answer in the near future.
    All the argument about DNA and Germany applies almost as much to my family tree. Should that be forbidden because it reveals my cousin’s ancestry? If we reject the DNA load because it’s not just my DNA but my cousin’s as well, then we should surely reject the family tree also, as it goes close enough to my cousins that any competent genealogists could identify them and therefore their ancestry.
Paranoia has set in. How long do we live on this plant? History does teach us a few good things but the future is yet to be told. Where will we be when biometrics may be used on identification or passports? I for one am glad the police may have solved some old cold case files. As suggested by others, I would expect the investigation would now collect more evidence to clearing indicate the culprit is the correct person.
I am more concerned about the media and how someone is painted as a criminal even before all the facts are in or someone has their day in court. Once the media convicts you, even if you are proven as innocent the damage may be done and the individual’s life will likely never be the same.
Genealogy has similar issues. When researching an individual we often find bits and pieces. We might try to come to a conclusion about the individual but we really don’t have all the facts or history. The time period we all live in past/present can affect what individuals may do.
The theory about criminals using GEDMatch sounds like a great premise for a mystery story/thriller. I wish I was a writer.
All sorts of people, businesses and the Government make statements about how our privacy and personal information are to be kept safe and confidential. There are, after all, laws about that. And yet, it is not safe. HIPPA regulations are supposed to make sure all of your medical information and records are confidential (and you have to go through some interesting things to get your own information) and yet…the Dr.’s office managed to mail out my compleat set of records which vanished into the US Mail (no tracking just addressed a packet and “poof” gone- so sorry, too bad, you have to ask for another set- but our computers are down it will take a while). Ah, yes, all of this stuff is now being either entered directly into formats for reports on computers or imaged and stored rather than held in a “locked filing storage vault” somewhere. And, businesses or professional’s are being hacked all the time, often with no information about the theft of sensitive data for months or more. Same thing with Government files
In my work experience I have had to provide fingerprints several times (you know, for Security and Background Check) and so those are are on file with both State Police and the FBI. If you have been in the military, your fingerprints are also on file, more recently also your DNA. Photo recognition is widely in use….don’t beleive that, don’t have to look crime drama shows, just use Facebook or a program like i-Photo. What happens when people put their photos in the Cloud?
Is it possible that Law Enforcement could make a mistake and arrest the wrong person and ruin their life even if they are quickly released? Happens all the time. And the comment about the Media and chewing a person’s life to bits just for becoming known as a suspect in an investigation….again, happens all the time for the profit and circulation boost of the various media outlets.
Government and other entities misuse information all the time. So all this hand wringing and moaning about sensitive data does’t do a lot as the ability to get at most of you personal data is almost the most trivial of the problems you face. It’s what they do with it that is the problem.
This horse left the barn years ago. Now it’s just the ranting and raving, particularly by politicians who want to “do something” about it for their own benefit, not for any actual protection of individuals.
That article just about sums up all the problems and opportunities for both the potential advantages of DNA testing and abuse of information and power in all of this. Collecting discarded items to get DNA (and other things) from people. Trying people in the media. Criminals in public service positions. Politicians making statements about protecting the public…and not (apparently) actualy doing anything substantive but get their name and high sounding words in the media (remember…”do it for the children”) and police not having the right suspect. And for those who would prefer not to acknowledge it, there are plenty of Judges who make some decisions based on political or ideological reasons for which there is little recourse or accountability under the Judicial System.


Saturday, May 26, 2018

New Database with Pictures of 18th and 19th Century Ireland is Launched

A New Database with Pictures of 18th and 19th Century Ireland is Launched

From an article by Micheál Ó Maoileoin in the Galway Daily:
“How was Ireland depicted in illustrations produced by travellers from 1680 to 1860? A new database of images drawn from travel accounts answers this question.

“Based on years of research by a group of investigators at NUI Galway led by Professor Jane Conroy, Ireland Illustrated is now available to view online.”
“Ireland Illustrated, 1680-1860, is a database of over 500 images of Ireland – woodcuts, water colours, engravings and other illustrations – with related text, drawn from more than 50 manuscript and printed works, and highlighting several neglected or rarely accessible sources.

“Many of the pictures in the database, woodcuts, water colours, engravings and other illustrations, have rarely, if ever, been seen by the public.”
You can read the full story and view a number of the images at:
The database is available at:

Friday, March 16, 2018

27 Public Libraries and the Internet Archive Launch “Community Webs” for Local History Web Archiving

27 Public Libraries and the Internet Archive Launch “Community Webs” for Local History Web Archiving

I have to believe this could become a huge resource for genealogists. According to an announcement in the Blog:

“With generous support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, as well as the Kahle/Austin Foundation and the Archive-It service, the Internet Archive and 27 public library partners representing 17 different states have launched a new program: Community Webs: Empowering Public Libraries to Create Community History Web Archives. The program will provide education, applied training, cohort network development, and web archiving services for a group of public librarians to develop expertise in web archiving for the purpose of local memory collecting. Additional partners in the program include OCLC’s WebJunction training and education service and the public libraries of Queens, Cleveland and San Francisco will serve as “lead libraries” in the cohort. The program will result in dozens of terabytes of public library administered local history web archives, a range of open educational resources in the form of online courses, videos, and guides, and a nationwide network of public librarians with expertise in local history web archiving and the advocacy tools to build and expand the network. A full listing of the participating public libraries is below and on the program website.”

This could result in huge online collections local history and information created by libraries nationwide. The list of participating libraries is impressive, ranging from big city libraries to one small town library near me. You can learn more at:

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Ukrainian Genealogy Group to Host a Virtual Conference

Ukrainian Genealogy Group to Host a Virtual Conference

The following announcement was written by Nashi Predky, the family history group of the Ukrainian History and Education Center:
The Ukrainian History and Education Center (UHEC) is proud to announce the first-ever virtual event for Ukrainian genealogy. Nashi Predky (Our Ancestors), the family history group of the UHEC, will be hosting their 2018 Spring Workshop virtually on Saturday, March 17th .
Since the group’s formation in 2013, all of the workshops and annual conferences have been held at the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Somerset, New Jersey. This year, the committee is excited to offer this event to fellow researchers who may not be able to travel for an in-person event.

The one-day event will begin at 9 a.m. with welcoming remarks from the event Chairperson Justin Houser, and the UHEC Archivist Michael Andrec. The workshop agenda includes four presentations with Question & Answer periods as well as breaks between sessions.
Attendees will watch presenters from around United States and Poland speak on the following topics:
  • Greek Catholics in Poland and Family //Research/ by Tadeusz Piłat (Poland)
  • Introduction to Ukrainian Genealogy/ by Justin Houser (Pennsylvania)
  • Introduction to DNA and Genetic Genealogy/ by Paul Woodbury (Utah)
  • A Historical Overview of Ukraine/ by Michael Andrec (New Jersey)
Using the GoToWebinar online conferencing platform, attendees can view the presentations from anywhere in the world on their own computer or mobile device with an Internet connection. Those attending the live sessions can also actively participate in the talks and ask questions through a special chat feature. Presentations will be archived for a 72-hour period after the event ends.
To learn more about the event, including lecture descriptions and speaker bios, and to complete the online registration, please visit the event page:
Don’t hesitate! There are less than 100 spaces available for the online event.

Why You Might Want to Attend a Virtual Conference

Why You Might Want to Attend a Virtual Conference

I believe virtual conferences are the wave of the future. I just returned from a 4-day genealogy conference in Salt Lake City. With the air travel, hotel expenses, restaurant meals, and conference admission, I spent more than $1,500 US. I also spent six days away from home: one day traveling to the event (in the cheapest airline coach seats I could find), four days at the conference, and one more day returning home. I am sure that attendees from overseas spent much more than I did.

Obviously, many people are not able to pay that much money or to take that many days out of their lives to attend such an event, regardless of their interest level. Luckily, technology can provide an alternative.

Holding events online is called a “virtual conference.” The presenters usually remain in their homes, using their own computers and video cameras to deliver their talks, videos, and slide shows. Attendees also typically remain in their homes or go to a nearby library or office and watch the conference events live on computers. Travel expenses and meals are close to zero. Even a conference syllabus is usually available online as a free electronic download, much cheaper than the $25 to $50 required to print each syllabus on paper.

In addition, the virtual conference organizers do not need to spend thousands of dollars for renting a modern conference center. The end result is lower costs all around. The attendees benefit again because admittance to virtual conferences is usually much, much cheaper than attending a conference in person.

Is an online virtual conference just as effective as attending a conference in person? I will suggest it is not. There are several elements missing in a virtual conference. I know I certainly miss the camaraderie of talking with other attendees in the hallways or in social situations before and after the daily conference events. Nonetheless, I will suggest that the virtual conferences do provide MOST of the benefits of an in-person conference and do so at a fraction of the price of traditional events.
Their are two financial considerations:
  1. The ever-increasing expenses of travel, hotels, and restaurant meals
  2. The ever-decreasing expenses of producing live virtual conferences
Here is a suggestion to future conference organizers: you might want to hold your next event in the online world.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Online U.S. Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

 Online U.S. Atlas of Historical County Boundaries 

One of the more useful tools for genealogists is the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries created by the Newberry Library in Chicago. When I first started in genealogy, one of my biggest frustrations was trying to find records of ancestors in the county where they lived. Many genealogical records are created by counties. In many cases, I knew the town where they lived and I also knew what county the town was in. Yet I couldn’t find the records that normally are kept in county courthouses, such as probate records or the deeds of land transfers.
As I gained more experience, I soon learned that the problem was mine. I had looked in the country records for the county lines of today. In many cases, the county lines had moved over the years, even though my ancestors had not moved an inch. Once recorded at the county courthouse, records normally remain at that courthouse forever, even if the county lines are redrawn later and the property or the town in question is then “moved” to a different county.

For instance, if your ancestor lived in the town of Smallville in Washington County when the information was recorded at the courthouse and later the county lines were redrawn so that town of Smallville and your ancestor’s location were later in Lincoln County, you still need to look for older records in the Washington County courthouse. Existing courthouse records usually are not moved to a new courthouse when county lines are redrawn.

Experienced genealogists all know that you need to look in the county courthouse for the correct county as of the date the records were filed. But how do you find the the correct county lines as of the date(s) your ancestors lived there and left records? You can find several books at well-equipped libraries that will provide that information. However, the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries will provide the information as well without requiring the time and travel expenses of visiting a well-equipped library. Yes, you can find the information without leaving home. The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries web site is available FREE of charge. You can even download the files to your own computer and save them or use them as you please. The online atlas has been available for years but I find that many genealogists are unaware of its existence and do not know how useful it can be.
With the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries, you can view records on a per state basis, an interactive map, or choose the time slots that best meet your requirements. You can search by location or by time or by both. To use the web site for the first time, select a state from the map on the site’s home page to view all of the Atlas’ content related to that state, including shapefiles, chronologies, and metadata. If you cannot quickly find the information you seek, narrow the search by choosing from the available list of options. Probably the most useful option for genealogists is to display maps by dates.
A lot of helpful information about the site can be found on the “Using the Atlas” page at:
This is a web site worth bookmarking. You probably won’t need to use it often but, if you do ever have a need, it can supply the information you seek quickly.
The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries is available at the Newberry Library’s web site at:

Thursday, February 22, 2018

RootsFinder Delivers Powerful New Tools to Genealogists for Free

I suspect this is going to be a major tool for all genealogists. The following announcement describes the latest project by several people, including Dallan Quass, a well-known software developer who has produced several excellent genealogy products in the past. He was the Chief Technology Officer of FamilySearch from 2002-2004 and the creator of and, two of FamilyTree Magazine’s top 101 genealogy websites.
RootsFinder tries to be a great tree for supporting genealogy researchers at all levels, but especially new genealogy researchers. It also focuses heavily on pictures, stories, and videos to make things more interesting for a younger audience.
Here is the announcement: is a free, online family tree that makes researching family history much easier. Unlike other online trees, which only provide hints to their own content, RootsFinder provides hints and search suggestions to websites such as:
  • FamilySearch
  • FindMyPast
  • AmericanAncestors
  • BillionGraves
  • FindAGrave
  • Ancestry
  • MyHeritage
  • and more

In addition, seamless sync with FamilySearch, integration with GenSmarts, evidence analysis, embedded research logs, and DNA tools (coming soon) add to RootsFinder’s powerful offering.
Along with these valuable tools, RootsFinder has also developed two Chrome Browser Extensions. The extensions make research and recording information faster and more accurate.
  1. WebClipper – Copy records and source citations quickly and automatically into your family tree from major genealogy websites such as Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, and more. It adds records to entire families at once.
  2. ToDo Creator – Save search ideas for later by attaching action items to specific people in your family tree, adding them to research logs, and marking them complete when done.
RootsFinder also has tools that make it easy to share your genealogy with your family safely and securely:
  • Invite others to your tree, but you control who edits
  • Ancestor reports with stories and pictures can be turned into family history books
  • Descendancy reports in the register format
  • Videos & photo mosaics created from your media
  • Fan charts and wall charts
  • Pinterest-like media wall for scrolling through photos
Two plans are available: an ad-supported Free-Forever plan, and a $35/year Pro plan that removes ads and includes additional storage and advanced features. Everyone gets a 30-day Pro plan for free.
A small group of dedicated genealogists and software developers have been working on RootsFinder for the past three years. Our goal is to provide a free online family tree that is focused on the needs of the genealogy researcher. We think we finally have something worth talking about. – Dallan Quass
About RootsFinder
RootsFinder ( was founded in 2015 by Dallan Quass, CTO of FamilySearch from 2002-2004 and the creator of and, two of FamilyTree Magazine’s top 101 genealogy websites. Dallan is joined at RootsFinder by Heather Henderson, Erin Harris, and other experienced genealogists who share his love of family history.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

WHERE DO You DO Most of your Genealogy Research? On the Internet? Then Help us Rural Genealogy Nuts Crack the Shell


Those of you who live in the city or town take for granted your highspeed or broadband download and upload and so Family History Research is a given, but what about Rural areas?  

  • Do all of you have the same options of 50 mbs DL (Download) and 12 mbs UL (Upload)?

    If not why not?

    Are you the typical baby boomer who doesn't have a lot of time left to do your research, share it with others and preserve it for future generations?

    If you live in South Dakota, please support our blog to draw attention to the problems with certain providers that charge a LOT for a LITTLE, with Caps on usage.  Without the great upload speeds, how do you preserve your photos, documents in the cloud?

    Can you get somebody to listen to you?

     Please visit this blog and post comments to any of the articles!  If you aren't in South Dakota but in RURAL ANYWHERE, please support us--let us know how you get broadband, high speeds, with no caps, at a reasonable price.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

JSTOR: the Great Online Genealogy Resource that Few Genealogists Know About

JSTOR: the Great Online Genealogy Resource that Few Genealogists Know About

Genealogy information can be found in many places. Most genealogists know about and use the various online sites that have census records, vital records, pension application files, and user-contributed family trees online. These are great resources but they are not the only ones available to us. For instance, have you used JSTOR?
JSTOR is an online library of hundreds of years of academic research and presently contains more than 1,900 journal titles in more than 50 disciplines. The web site started in 1995 as a site containing back issues of academic journals. Since then, JSTOR has grown to include books and primary sources, and current issues of journals.
A quick search for “genealogy” on the JSTOR web site produced 105,889 “hits” to that word.
As always, I searched for some of the surnames in my own family tree. Here is one that I found that can serve as a typical example of the information found on JSTOR:

Eastman’s Maternal Ancestry: Letter from Charles Alexander Eastman to H. M. Hitchcock, September 8, 1927
Studies in American Indian Literatures
Series 2, Vol. 17, No. 2, Honoring A. Lavonne Brown Ruoff (SUMMER 2005), pp. 10-17
Published by: University of Nebraska Press
Stable URL:
Page Count: 8
JSTOR provides full-text searches of more than 1,900 journals and more than a few of those are journals published by some of the most respected historical societies of our time. Most of the journals are published online on JSTOR about 3 to 5 years after publication in print. However, if a journal’s publishers agree, journals may be published even earlier.
Journals available in JSTOR typically do not contain lists of individual residents of an area. However, they are very useful for:
  • Researching historical figures, places, and events
  • Finding state- and region-specific information and history
  • Learning about immigration patterns, political movements, and social issues of the day
  • Some of the available online journals include:
The Arkansas Historical Quarterly published by the Arkansas Historical Association
  • Massachusetts Historical Review
  • Michigan Historical Review
  • Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
  • Wisconsin Magazine of History
  • Tennessee Historical Quarterly
The above is an abbreviated list; there are many more.
JSTOR is a subscription web site although it is possible to read up to three articles at no charge. Plans start at $9.99 per month or $99 per year if paid one year in advance. However, many libraries have subscriptions to JSTOR so it is possible to gain free access by visiting a local library in person or, in some cases, accessing JSTOR remotely by first logging onto your library’s web site and using its “gateway” to JSTOR. More than 7,000 academic institutions, public libraries, research institutions, museums, and schools in more than 150 countries have access.
JSTOR is available at:

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

How DNA Testing Botched My Family's Heritage, and Probably Yours, Too

  How DNA Testing Botched My Family's Heritage, and Probably Yours, Too

 by Kristen V. Brown
Senior Writer, Gizmodo. 

Go to this website to see the complete, exact article for illustrations AND the comments which are quite valuable.

"My grandfather was caramel-skinned with black eyes and thick, dark hair, and until he discovered that he was adopted, he had no reason to suspect that he was not the son of two poor Mexicans as he’d always been told. When he found his adoption papers, according to family lore, he pestered the nuns at the Dallas orphanage where he had lived as an infant for the name of his birth mother. Name in hand, at 10 years old, he hopped a bus to Pennsylvania, met his birth mother, and found out that he was actually Syrian.
At least that’s what we thought until my Aunt Cat mailed a tube of her spit in to AncestryDNA.
Genetic testing suggested that my aunt’s genetic makeup was only a tiny bit Middle Eastern—16 percent, not the 50 percent you might expect if your father was a full-blooded Syrian, as my grandfather believed himself to be. The rest of her Ancestry breakdown provided some explanation, but mostly more confusion. While we typically think of the Caucasus as countries on the Black and Caspian seas like Turkey and Armenia, Ancestry’s test also said it includes Syria. According to Ancestry, the Caucasus accounted for another 15 percent of my Aunt Cat’s DNA. What about the other 20 percent? One line-item stood out as something my aunt hadn’t expected, based on what she knew about either of her parents: She was 30 percent Italian-Greek. My mother’s test revealed similar results.
This caused a minor family scandal. My grandfather’s mother was born in Pennsylvania, but she had lived in an insular Syrian community that never really assimilated. She became pregnant as a teen by her father’s best friend. The assumption had always been that he was Syrian, too. If we weren’t who we thought we were, well, then, who were we?
“I guess we never knew the name of Dad’s father,” my aunt told me, bemused. Suddenly it seemed as though all along we had been missing a gigantic puzzle piece of information about our family tree. At least, my aunt quipped, this was a solid explanation for why she loved pasta.
It’s right there in the fine print of any consumer DNA test, if you bother to read it: DNA testing can come with identity-disrupting surprises, be it an unexpected relative, genetic condition, or, in our case, heritage. But something about this particular surprise didn’t feel quite right."
My Aunt Cat is our family’s amateur genealogist, and she has logged hundreds of hours both on and in my grandmother’s attic, piecing together the story of our family tree. She’s found countless third, fourth, and fifth cousins with ties to Syria, but no one from either Italy or Greece. In her twenties, she even visited my grandfather’s biological mother and aunt. She recalled them passing around a hookah, yelling in Arabic, and expressing repulsion at the American-style cold cut platter served at a community function. Given how segregated the family was, it seemed like a stretch, she told me, to imagine that anyone had ever had so much as a friendly conversation with an Italian.
I suspected the error might lay not in my family narrative, but in the DNA test itself. So I decided to conduct an experiment. I mailed my own spit samples to AncestryDNA, as well as to 23andMe and National Geographic. For each test I got back, the story of my genetic heritage was different—in some cases, wildly so.
My AncestryDNA test revealed that I, too, had geographic roots in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Southern Europe, along with the expected big dose of Scandinavian from my very Norwegian father. Weirdly, though, my percentages of Middle Eastern and Caucasus were almost as high as my mom and aunt’s, though you would expect them to be closer to half.
It got more confusing from there. My test through National Geographic (which partners with the DNA sequencing company Helix for its test) gave me even more links to the Middle East, with 16 percent of my DNA from Asia Minor, 6 percent from the Persian Gulf and 9 percent something called “Jewish Diaspora.” Unlike AncestryDNA, National Geographic’s test assigns your heritage to broad regions instead of modern nation-states. But I could infer that, according to National Geographic, I was less Scandinavian based on my percentage of Northwestern European. I was also more Southern European and, for fun, now had a good chunk of Eastern European thrown in there, too.
23andMe’s ancestry results were the most confounding of all. It found that I was only 3 percent Scandanavian, a number that, based on my recent family history, I know is flatly wrong. It also found I was only 5.5 percent Middle Eastern and a whopping 62.6 percent Northwestern European. And no Eastern European at all.
 I also uploaded my 23andMe data to GenCove, a small ancestry-test startup founded by scientists. Based on the exact same data that 23andMe had crunched, GenCove reported that 8 percent of my DNA was from the Indian subcontinent. 23andMe had found I had no South Asian DNA at all.
Four tests, four very different answers about where my DNA comes from—including some results that contradicted family history I felt confident was fact. What gives?
There are a few different factors at play here.
Genetics is inherently a comparative science: Data about your genes is determined by comparing them to the genes of other people.
As Adam Rutherford, a British geneticist and author of the excellent book “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived,” explained to me, we’ve got a fundamental misunderstanding of what an ancestry DNA test even does.
“They’re not telling you where your DNA comes from in the past,” he told me, “They’re telling you where on Earth your DNA is from today.”
Ancestry, for example, had determined that my Aunt Cat was 30 percent Italian by comparing her genes to other people in its database of more than six million people, and finding presumably that her genes had a lot of things in common with the present-day people of Italy.
Heritage DNA tests are more accurate for some groups of people than others, depending how many people with similar DNA to yours have already taken their test. Ancestry and 23andMe have actually both published papers about how their statistical modeling works.
As Ancestry puts it: “When considering AncestryDNA estimates of genetic ethnicity it is important to remember that our estimates are, in fact, estimates. The estimates are variable and depend on the method applied, the reference panel used, and the other customer samples included during estimation.”
That the data sets are primarily made up of paying customers also skews demographics. If there’s only a small number of Middle Eastern DNA samples that your DNA has been matched against, it’s less likely you’ll get a strong Middle Eastern match.
“Different companies have different reference data sets and different algorithms, hence the variance in results,” a spokesman from 23andMe told me. “Middle Eastern reference populations are not as well represented as European, an industry-wide challenge.”
As a person of Syrian descent, the British genealogist Debbie Kennett told me, my test was simply not going to be as accurate as fellow Americans whose relatives skew more European. “The tests are mainly geared for an American audience, and they tend to not have a lot of Middle Eastern ancestry,” she said.
Likewise, Kennett said, because relatively few English people have taken tests from American companies like Ancestry or 23andMe, residents of the U.K. are likely to find less useful results.
“A lot of English people come up with a low percentage of British. My dad was only 8 percent British and most of his ancestors as far back as I can trace came back from Great Britain,” she told me. “People in America come up with much higher percentage of British, often.”
Another anecdote that stuck with me came from my friend Alexis Madrigal. Initially, he said, his Mexican family came up as Arab North African, which was surprising. As 23andMe refined its test and its data set grew, it also refined the results: Now, he was descended from Jewish people from Southern Europe. The number of Madrigals in central Spain had long led the family to suspect that their migratory path to Mexico had at some point passed through this region. As more people took the test, the picture of where his family was “from” changed. The Canadian bioethicist Timothy Caulfield shared a similar story. At first a DNA test revealed he was entirely Irish, but as the data set changed, he gradually became less Irish.
When we talk about “ancestry,” we also don’t always mean the same thing. Ancestry just implies people you’re descended from. But when? In America, we often mean whenever our relatives came to the U.S. On my dad’s side, I expected to see a lot of Scandinavian, because just a few generations ago my great grandparents came from Norway to North Dakota. On my mom’s side, my grandmother has a relative that came to America on the Mayflower. Both are what come to mind when I think of my “ancestors,” but they are separated by several generations and hundreds of years in time. Rutherford pointed out that if we went 5oo years back, my ancestors were probably from all over Europe.
“You and I are probably fifth cousins,” he said.
Where your ancestors are from depends on what period in time you’re talking about. Why don’t I instead say I’m 50 percent North Dakotan and 50 percent Texan?
Tests also differ from one another because they’re simply looking at different things. The results of ancestry tests aren’t based on a reading of your whole genome. The vast majority of every human’s DNA is identical to any other human’s. Ancestry tests look at SNPs, the places on your genome where an individual letter tends to differ between people and give us insight into characteristics like disease, ancestry, and physical appearance. When an SNP occurs within a gene, then, in science-speak, that gene has more than one allele, or alternate forms of a gene that exist in the exact same place on a chromosome. To make matters more confusing, some tests look at mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA, while others don’t. 

The CEO of GenCove, the company where I had uploaded my 23andMe data to get drastically different results, told me that even though he expects a fair amount of variability between algorithms, even he was surprised at how differently his company and 23andMe had interpreted my DNA data. He asked me to also upload my Ancestry data, and ran both data sets again after GenCove’s algorithm had been updated. The results were all over the map.
“To be honest I’m a little confused about what’s going on,” CEO Joseph Pickrell told me.
Each testing company is looking at different alleles from different parts of the genome, and using different algorithms to crunch that data. (You can see a list of how company tests differ here.) It’s worth mentioning that genetics is also probabilistic: just because you have the gene, doesn’t mean you have the trait.
“One British company identified an allele in me that gave me ginger hair, and 23andMe didn’t,” said Rutherford. “That’s a simple case where they just used different alleles. That’s relatively simple to explain.”
And sometimes, the algorithms might just get it wrong. Rutherford told me his 23andMe test came back with a tiny amount of Native American DNA. The finding actually linked up with one anecdote from his family lore, about a relative of his father’s that was a Native American tribesman and horse jumper in a British traveling circus.
“As a geneticist, I am absolutely convinced that they’re not related,” he told me. “It’s just statistical noise that happens to coincide with this cool story.” Statistically, it’s unlikely that such tiny amount of Native American DNA would have been enough to show up on Rutherford’s test.
A big problem is that many of us have a basic misunderstanding of what exactly we’re reading when Ancestry or 23andMe or National Geographic sends us colorful infographics about how British or Irish or Scandinavian we are. It’s not that the science is bad. It’s that it’s inherently imperfect, an estimation based on how much our DNA matches up with people in other places around the world, in a world where people have been mixing and matching and getting it on since the beginning of human history.
“You’re creating different algorithms and you’re using different data sets as your reference points, so it makes sense that you’re going to get some different responses,” the Harvard geneticist Robert Green explained to me, as I tried to make sense of my own DNA data. “It’s not that one’s wrong and one’s right. It’s that there isn’t an agreed-upon approach to pick the right number of markers and combine them mathematically. Everyone is sort of just making it up as they go along.”

At the continental level, said Kennett, ancestry testing is useful. It can tell you pretty reliably whether you are African or Asian or European. It can also reliably identify close familial relatives, as distant as third or fourth cousins. Otherwise, Kennett said, “take it with a large pinch of salt.”
Nearly everyone I interviewed for this story said that, taken with the right mindset, ancestry DNA testing can be fun. As more people take DNA tests and company data sets grow, the results from those tests will also become more detailed and accurate. Anecdotally, I saw this in my own results. Ancestry has the biggest DNA database, and its interpretation of my DNA was also most in-line with what I expected.

“The more people that take tests, the better the experience for all of us,” an Ancestry spokesman told me. “Your DNA does not change, our science does.”
But consumer genetic testing companies have also fueled the misunderstanding of their products, suggesting that those colorful results reveal something profound about what makes you, you.
Take this AncestryDNA ad about Kyle Merker, who, the ads explains, grew up German, wearing a lederhosen and performing traditional German dances. Then an AncestryDNA test revealed he was actually Scottish and Irish. He bought a kilt. is suggesting—quite heavy-handedly—that your DNA can define your identity. A few changes to those As, Gs, Ts, and Cs, and all of the sudden you’re river dancing.
“Your culture is not your genes,” said Caulfield. “But the message these companies send is somehow where your genes are from matters. That’s not necessarily constructive. The role of genes in who we are is very complex. If anything, as genetic research moves forward we’re learning that it’s even more complex than we thought.”
In truth, your specific ancestors actually have relatively little impact on your DNA. Some 99.99 percent of your DNA is identical to every other human’s. We’re mostly just all the same. But instead of embracing our genetic similarities, we cling to those differences as symbols of what makes us unique. Consumer DNA testing tends to reinforce that—even though the difference that one test reveals might not even exist in another.
“These companies are asking people to pay for something that is at best trivial and at worst astrology,” said Rutherford. “The biggest lesson we can teach people is that DNA is probabilistic and not deterministic.”
Your DNA is only part of what determines who you are, even if the analysis of it is correct. Plenty of people love pasta, with or without Italian DNA.
If the messaging of consumer DNA companies more accurately reflected the science, though, it might be a lot less compelling: Spit in a tube and find out where on the planet it’s statistically probable that you share ancestry with today.
Learning he was Syrian did not seem to impact my grandfather’s identity as a Mexican man. And how could it? His life story was the story of so many children of immigrants. His father, Manuel, had swum the Rio Grande from Mexico to America in hopes of a better future. He worked as a waiter, and my great-grandmother as a seamstress. At age 10, my grandfather was sent to work at a Coca-Cola bottling plant to help the family make ends meet. He lost a finger. Eventually, he met my blonde-haired, blue-eyed grandmother and moved to California, hoping to raise their children somewhere it would matter less that one of their parents spoke Spanish as a first language.
But me, I don’t even look the part. I’m fair with blue eyes. As a kid, I remember wincing when my friend’s mom made xenophobic comments directed at Mexicans, never suspecting her daughter’s fair friend had some Mexican ties, even if they were not by blood but by heart. As an adult, I learned Arabic and perfected my tamale-making, all in search of some sort of an identity fit. When my grandfather was dying, I struggled with the relationship between DNA and cultural identity. I wondered what would become of my Mexican heritage, once my last living link to it was gone.
In the end, I finally found the same wisdom my grandfather never seemed to question. Sometimes your heritage doesn’t have anything at all to do with your genetics—and I didn’t even have to spit in a test tube to figure it out."