Saturday, 19 May 2018

Genealogy and DNA casualties of GDPR – farewell to World Families Network, Ysearch and Mitosearch

On 25th May GDPR  the General Data Protection Regulation  will come into force in the European Union. Although the UK is leaving the European Union in 2019, the legislation will also apply to the UK and will be enshrined in UK law through the new Data Protection Bill, which is currently going through Parliament. Although this is an EU regulation, it applies to companies and organisations worldwide which have customers or members in the EU, though it is not at all clear how the EU will be able to enforce the regulation in practice in countries over which it has no jurisdiction. Nevertheless, most big companies outside the EU are taking the legislation seriously and it has already had the benefit of encouraging large American companies like Facebook and Google to improve their previously lax attitudes to privacy.

However, while the aims of GDPR are sound, the legislation is hitting small companies and volunteer organisations particularly hard. Valuable volunteer time is being taken up in interpreting and enacting the requirements. GDPR sets a high bar for consent, and all consents have to be GDPR compliant. Although fresh consent is not always necessary, some organisations have decided to take no chances and have sought renewed consent regardless. Like everyone else, I have been bombarded with e-mails from companies and organisations asking me to give consent to receive e-mails and newsletters that I've already asked to receive. There have been endless other e-mails informing me of updated privacy policies. With the best will in the world I simply do not have the time or inclination to read all the fine details of these thousands of new policies, which rather defeats the object of the requirement for informed consent.

Some people have decided that GDPR is not worth the effort:
There have been two big casualties in the world of genetic genealogy.

World Families Network
World Families Network, a website run by Terry Barton, will be shutting down on 23rd May. Terry decided that the "ambiguity and uncertainty of the bureaucratic requirements" of GDPR "are just more than we care to deal with". See here for the full text of Terry's statement. Terry was acting as administrator for 750 Family Tree DNA projects. These will now all be hosted directly on the FTDNA website, but the pedigree information accumulated over many years will be lost unless new admins can be found to take over.

Wayne Kaufman has kindly compiled a spreadsheet with a list of all the projects available for adoption. You can access the spreadsheet from this link:

If you are interested in taking over one of these projects send an e-mail to Terry at World Families or write to FTDNA.

Ysearch and Mitosearch
Ysearch and Mitosearch were set up by Family Tree DNA as public databases where DNA results could be uploaded from any testing company for comparison purposes. Neither site has been maintained for several years now and it is perhaps no surprise that GDPR has prompted FTDNA to shut both sites. Ysearch was also controversially used to identify suspects in criminal investigations, which on three occasions led to the false incrimination of an innocent person. Here is the text of the e-mail that was sent out to Ysearch and Mitosearch customers:
Dear Valued Ysearch & Mitosearch Members, 
On May 24th, 2018, our free, public genetic-genealogy databases, and, will no longer be accessible as a result of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) going into effect on May 25th. 
As the founders of the direct-to-consumer genetic genealogy industry, we did not make this decision lightly. We believe it is necessary given the resources it would take to make both sites GDPR compliant. The current environment regarding DNA privacy as well as recent events in the news, particularly DNA databases being utilized to solve cold cases, were also considerations, but the rigorous requirements of GDPR would have prompted this action irrespective of current events. 
User privacy policies across all of the major consumer genetic-genealogy service providers have become a topic of national conversation, and it is our goal to ensure that our privacy policies continue to meet or exceed industry norms. 
We encourage you to continue your journey of discovery with us on FamilyTreeDNA, and we thank you for your participation in “citizen science” over the years. 
The vast majority of DNA results on Ysearch and Mitosearch were contributed by Family Tree DNA customers. FTDNA now monopolise the Y-DNA and mtDNA testing market and are the only company that provides a matching database for Y-DNA and mtDNA. However, Ysearch and Mitosearch also hosted Y-DNA and mtDNA results from customers of other testing companies that have since ceased operations. Relative Genetics, DNA Heritage and GeneTree closed down many years ago. Ancestry stopped offering Y-DNA and mtDNA tests in 2014. Oxford Ancestors has announced that it will be shutting down this summer. Although Oxford Ancestors have not mentioned GDPR, it is likely to have been a precipitating factor in their decision.

With the closure of Ysearch and Mitosearch the DNA results from these other testing companies will no longer be accessible anywhere for comparison purposes. DNA Heritage was acquired by Family Tree DNA and customers were given the option of transferring the results to FTDNA free of charge. People who tested with a Sorenson Lab (AncestryDNA, GeneTree and the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation) can take advantage of FTDNA's Y-DNA transfer programme. Customers of other testing companies will need to get re-tested at Family Tree DNA if they wish to receive matches. Unfortunately, many of the results uploaded to Ysearch and Mitosearch will be lost forever because the participant has either passed away or is no longer active.

Preservation of DNA records
We as a genealogy community need to do a better job of preserving our DNA records. If you are interested in helping to find a solution please join the new Facebook group Committee for the Preservation of DNA Records.

Update 27th July 2019
There is now a new public Y-DNA and mtDNA database called MitoYDNA which will serve as a replacement for Ysearch and Mitosearch. For details see this blog post from Mags Gaulden, one of the founders of MitoYDNA.

Further reading


Carl Oehmann said...

Wikitree is also a casualty as they will delete DNA test info for all living persons unless they take ownership of their profile.

Debbie Kennett said...

I wouldn't regard that as a casualty. That is a good outcome as a result of GDPR. DNA test results for living people should not have been uploaded without consent.

JessicaMcManus66 said...

As someone who has used Y-Search and knows first hand how it one's information was uploaded without their permission. You actually have to agree to have your DNA uploaded and compared.

Debbie Kennett said...

Jessica, I was referring to Wikitree and not Ysearch.

Jacques Beaugrand said...

In any case, we had noticed that for several years FTDNA had been neglecting the YSearch and MitoSearch databases. They were in decline. The haplogroups had to be noted using the old nodal notation and mtDNA haplogroups were not synchronized to the PhyloTree nomenclature. Decadent and ineffective bases. Sooner or later FTDNA was going to shut them up we knew it.

Why ISOGG did not anticipate these closures and developed alternative solutions?

The next tile that will fall on us will come from FTDNA when this company will be sold and will close its * genealogy * pane to focus on more lucrative health and the judiciary ones. Salve!

Jacques Beaugrand said...

Me again ..

With regard to the closure of Terry Barton's World Families Network, it must be recognized that this network played an important role in the years in which G/DNA was growing. Indeed, this network played a role of incubator of surname projects, in the absence of (competent) project administrators.

At a certain point, however, it was difficult to open a new surname project at FTDNA because FTDNA said that this same project existed in the World Families network and that Terry wanted to keep it in his lap even though he clearly had no time to deal with it personally. Later he agreed to transfer some projects to FTDNA but he still retained a hand on the projects transferred to FTDNA administrators.

Personally, I have long wished that all World Families Network projects be passed to FTDNA when an administrator was willing to run it.

It's done now.
Thanks Terry!
Retirement well deserved.

Debbie Kennett said...

Thanks for your comments Jacques. There have been discussions over the years about coming up with a replacement for Ysearch but nothing ever happened. ISOGG is just a disparate group of volunteers and any new initiatives require volunteers to come forward to do the work. Also, because ISOGG has no membership fees, it doesn't have any money. There is a real need for an independent genealogy DNA database that is not controlled by any testing company. Any volunteer-run effort is eventually likely to fall by the wayside as we've seen with World Families Network.

I wonder if the solution is for the archives sector to collaborate and come up with a database to preserve our DNA records. Archives preserve written genealogy records and the DNA records are just another type of genealogy record so perhaps they should all be kept in the same place.

I don't think FTDNA have any plans to get rid of their genealogy arm but the future of none the current companies is guaranteed.

I agree that World Families Network had an important role in the early years of genetic genealogy when we had a number of companies fighting for market share. I would prefer to see more competition in the Y-DNA and mtDNA testing market. I don't think it's healthy for one company to have a monopoly. I hadn't realised that WFN still retained control after a project was transferred back to FTDNA. Is that because Terry helped to mentor the new project admin?