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


  1. Maurice - would you please let us know some of the reasons why someone should be concerned about their DNA being posted at a genealogy testing company? I'm thinking that people might be worried that someone will use or take their DNA (cloning? insurance? police?). Many of these options listed means that the benefits of DNA testing and matching for family history are diminished.

    1. Privacy will always be a "hot topic" and we will continuously find new ways to help improve and protect it. GDPR legislation has helped draw focus onto this topic as has the recent use of commercial DNA databases by Law Enforcement agencies. You can read some previous blog posts I did on this topic here ...

  2. I took an Ancestry DNA test to help with the brick walls in my family tree. My maternal grandmother was born out-of-wedlock (1889) and three of my father's great-grandparents I cannot find any paper trail for (US mid-1800's). Most of my matches I could identify but one of my closest matches a 1-2 cousin I could not figure out how we would be connected because her "half" tree had not names I recognized. A little further down my match list was another "half" tree but this person was a 2-3rd cousin. I contacted the second match because I could see that she had been recently on Ancestry. My match responds that she doesn't know how we are related because her mother was adopted. Her mother was my first Ancestry match.

    I load my raw DNA onto another platform and in my top matches was a name of a lady who was a 1st cousin once removed - 2nd cousin. I contact her since she had no tree but didn't expect a response. An hour later the lady emails. She is adopted and has no knowledge of her birth parents except the surname of one of her parents. Its the same as my paternal grandmother's maiden name. A match to her listed in the relationship as a great-grandchild, great-niece/great-nephew or a 1st cousin to her but a 4-6th cousin to myself contacts me. Her father was adopted. The birth surname he had was the same as my paternal grandmother's maiden name. I've had my DNA up for less than 3 months and I've come across two adoptees (in their 70's) and two children of adoptees who's parents have passed.