Wednesday 10 July 2019

Optimising your Anonymity & Privacy with DNA tests

Here are some practical hints and tips to optimise your Privacy if you are thinking of doing a DNA test (or you have already done one).

1) Don’t test!
This is the simplest way to avoid exposing your self to potential online scrutiny and unwanted intrusion from others. If you are not sure whether you should do a DNA test or not, do yourself a favour and don't test. You will only worry about it if you do.

2) Get your brother to do it instead
Some people are less concerned about privacy than others ... so if this is how one of your siblings feels, why not ask them to test instead? One person I know did this and everyone was happy. Win-win.

3) Don't use your Real Name
You are not obliged to use your real name. You can use whatever name you want. I don't recommend using "Clint Eastwood" (unless you want unlimited fan-mail) - much better to use something completely nondescript like John Williams or Jane Jones.

Genealogically it makes sense to use your surname (as this will help with any genealogical research) but again, it's not essential. You can just as easily use an alias, a pseudonym, or a nom de plume. Or even a sequence of letters & numbers … FYL227 has a particular ring to it.

A cunning disguise will fool most people
(this is obviously Groucho Marx in a wig)

4) Disguise your Personal Information

Similar to above, you are under no obligation to use your real date of birth. Now is the perfect opportunity to take 10 years off your age. I did and I feel so much better.

You could also create a bespoke, untraceable email address just for your DNA tests. It's easy to set one up on Gmail and have any messages directed to your inbox. I believe is already taken but something similar would work just as well. It would be extremely difficult to identify you from a seemingly random combination of letters and numbers.

Only give the minimum amount of information necessary. I don't bother with my postal address or telephone number. If they can't reach me by email then I am probably on a retreat to the North Pole and they are unlikely to reach me by snail mail or telephone either.

5) Privatise your DNA account
All the testing companies allow you the option to make your results completely private. For some, this means that your matches cannot see you, but you cannot see them either. And this seems like it might defeat the purpose of doing the test in the first place, but not so! You can de-privatise your results when you want to work on them, and re-privatise them when you have finished. This minimises the amount of time you are "exposed to public view" by your matches.

Here is how to privatise your DNA matches on the various websites ...
  • Ancestry: go to Your DNA Results Summary, click on Settings, then scroll down to Visibility & Sharing, click on DNA Matches, tick the Off button, and click Save. To reverse this process, tick the On button, and click Save. Once you have privatised your DNA matches, they cannot see you and you cannot see them.
  • 23andMe: click on your name or icon in the top right, click on Settings, scroll down to Privacy / Sharing, click on the Edit button, scroll down to DNA Relatives and click on Manage your Preferences, then click on "I would like to stop participating in DNA Relatives". Then click the Finish button. Once you have privatised your DNA matches, they cannot see you and you cannot see them.
  • MyHeritage: click on your name in the menu bar at the top, then click on My Privacy, then click on My DNA Preferences, then select the DNA kit you wish to customise (from the drop-down menu), then untick the Enable DNA Matching box, and then click on Save Once you have privatised your DNA matches, they cannot see you and you cannot see them.
  • FTDNA: click on your name in the menu bar at the top, then click on Account Settings, then click on Privacy & Sharing, and then under Matching Preferences, click on the button beside Opt in to Matching so that it switches to the Off position. Your changes are automatically saved. A pop-up box appears at the bottom of the page after about 10 seconds stating "Your selections have been saved".  Once you have privatised your DNA matches, they cannot see you and you cannot see them.
  • LivingDNA: click on Profiles in the menu bar at the left, select your profile, scroll down to Family Matching, click on Opted In, tick the Opt Out button, and then click Save Once you have privatised your DNA matches, they cannot see you and you cannot see them.
  • GEDmatch: on the Home Page, scroll down to Your DNA Resources and find your kit number. Click on the Edit icon to the right of your kit number. Scroll down to Public Profile, and under Change Access, tick the Research button and then the green Change button. This makes your kit private and no one can see you as a match, but you can still see all your DNA matches.

6) Privatise your Family Tree
Without a family tree attached to them, DNA results are relatively useless. You could show up as a close "2nd cousin match" to someone else but if you haven't supplied any family tree information, it can be very difficult for them to figure out how you fit in to their tree.

Keeping your family tree private is as effective as keeping your DNA results hidden (if not moreso).

7) Delete your DNA account

If you have finished working with them, you could delete your results completely. This works really well if you have transferred your results to a particular website from another company - you can always keep the original results on the website you initially tested with and re-upload them again at any time.

Similarly, you can delete your kit from any website and have your sample destroyed.

So there are ways and means of finding the level of privacy and security that you personally feel comfortable with. Can you think of any others? Leave a comment below. 

Have fun! Play safe!
Maurice Gleeson
July 2019
updated Sep 2023

Tuesday 9 July 2019

Irish Mother finds her son ... 60 years later

When it came time for her to deliver, she was taken into a room and put to sleep. When she woke up, the large bump of her pregnancy was gone, and so was her child. For the past 60 years she has always wondered if it was a boy or a girl - they wouldn't tell her.

Now, 60 years later, thanks to DNA, she knows. It's a boy.

There are many people in Ireland searching for their birth family. Some are adoptees, some are foundlings, some are people who were raised in industrial schools, some of whom were boarded out. Over the past few years, many of these people have turned to DNA for help, and these numbers are increasing all the time as the success stories of people finding family through DNA are becoming more widespread.

But it's not just the children that are searching for their families, it's the parents too. I have been working with several birth mothers (in their 70s and 80s) who are trying to locate the child that was taken away from them many decades beforehand. Many tell a similar story, like the one at the top of this article. They had little control over what happened to them. Decisions were made for them. And they were left with little or no information about the child they gave birth to, not even what gender it was.

I am delighted to announce that one of my clients (the woman above) has finally reconnected with her son. She gave up her child 60 odd years ago, and it only took 12 months for DNA to find him. She tested with Ancestry and then uploaded her data to FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage & Gedmatch (the recommended approach).

Now comes the next step in their journey - getting to know each other, building bridges, putting the past in the past, and moving into the future. This is a slow process that will take a lot of work on both sides.

Any birth parent who wants to find and contact their child should first seek advice from the Adoption Authority of Ireland (AAI). They can help you sign up to the National Adoption Contact Preference Register (application form here, and Frequently Asked Questions here) and help you to contact the Agency who placed your child for adoption. You can email the AAI at This should be your first port of call before turning to DNA.

If tracing using the first-line method above is unsuccessful, then you can consider DNA testing. The recommended approach is to test with Ancestry, and then upload a copy of the results to MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA, LivingDNA and Gedmatch. If this is unsuccessful, you should also test with 23andMe. If this is still unsuccessful, then it becomes a waiting game. You are hoping that some time soon your child or one of their children will do a DNA test and pop up in one of the databases as your closest match.

When they do, the connection may be instantaneous and things may move very quickly indeed so be prepared - think about what you want to tell them, think about the sort of questions they may ask you, write it all down, and put it in a letter (or two) that you can post or email to your child.

For most people, reconnection is an emotional rollercoaster. It is best to have professional help on hand in case you need it. Take things slowly. You will need time to process your feelings. So will the other person and their family. Be kind to yourself and to others.

Further information can be found in an earlier blog post here. For ways of optimising your Privacy with DNA tests, read this post here.

My thanks go to Ancestry who provided free DNA kits to help with this research.

Maurice Gleeson
July 2019