The Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF) was an early collector of DNA information to be used for genealogy purposes. It was founded by inventor and philanthropist James LeVoy Sorenson and Brigham Young University professor Dr. Scott Woodward. Mr. Sorenson envisioned the development of a genetic-genealogical blueprint of all humankind. Some years later, the database and supporting infrastructure was acquired by Ancestry.com and became the basis for what is now Ancestry DNA. It has since served the interests of thousands of genealogists as well as several other communities.
Sadly, Ancestry has now announced the closure of this valuable service. The announcement at http://www.smgf.org states:
We regret to inform you the site you have accessed is no longer available.
Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF) was founded in 2000 with the philanthropic goal of helping connect mankind. It was the organization’s goal through the sharing of genetic data, to show how the similarities we possess are greater than our differences. The site was created in the spirit of openness and it is in that spirit AncestryDNA purchased the DNA assets from SMGF to further its mission and support the intentions on which it was founded. Unfortunately, it has come to our attention the site has been used for purposes other than that which it was intended, forcing us to cease operations of the site.
We understand the site has been a helpful resource for genealogists and plan to advance the original vision of Mr. Sorenson by continuing to develop tools like ethnicity estimates, matching, DNA Circles, and New Ancestor Discoveries, which are connecting mankind. There are no plans to destroy the DNA that was contributed, but have no plans to make the service available in the future.
Ancestry is committed to helping people understand their family’s unique story and through AncestryDNA, make new discoveries about their family’s past and cultural roots. Like the original founders of SMGF, Ancestry also believes one can have a better understanding of who we are and where we come from. Through our continued work on family history and DNA, we will encourage the same mission of SMGF in hopes of making the world a smaller, more relatable place.
This is a big loss for genealogists. The “purposes other than that which it was intended” are not described in the announcement but obviously the recent and often inaccurate publicity surrounding Ancestry DNA’s actions in providing personal DNA information to law enforcement personnel in response to a court-ordered warrant has to be a major cause. Details may be found on Judy Russell’s The Legal Genealogist Blog at http://legalgenealogist.com/blog/2015/05/03/facts-matter/ as well as in my earlier article at http://goo.gl/MvxX8S.
Ancestry DNA is not the biggest loser in all this. The genealogy community is the biggest loser. We have lost a major tool used frequently by those hoping to learn more about our family histories.
Other genealogy-related DNA services remain in business, of course, including Family Tree DNA, 23andMe, Oxford Ancestors (in the U.K.) and several other, smaller services. However, the recent negative publicity plus Ancestry DNA’s announcement certainly will have a chilling effect on these other providers. I suspect the senior managers of the other companies are now re-evaluating their plans and are trying to find a method to provide these valuable genelogy services while avoiding negative publicity and various legal issues.
I suspect there are even bigger implications in this for all of us to consider. Indeed, making DNA information available for legitimate purposes is important for genealogy purposes, for medical research, for law enforcement, and for many other reasons as well. However, these reasons also raise many questions concerning privacy. There is nothing more private than the identifying information contained within our own bodies. Should that remain our own personal information and not be revealed to others? It is easy to say “I should have the option to decide whther or not to reveal my own DNA information” but that simple answer does not address all the realities.
The DNA contained within our own bodies does not identify only ourselves. It also helps identify our ancestors, our descendants, and our cousins. It identifies not only first cousins, but also helps identify second cousins, third cousins, and on and on to very distant cousins. Do any of us have a legal or moral right to contribute some of their identifying information to the public? When you think about the privacy rights of our distant relatives, even more questions arise.
The U.S. legal system is partially defined by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. It states that all citizens have a legitimate expectation of privacy — his or her person, clothing, purse, luggage, vehicle, house, apartment, hotel room, and place of business, to name a few examples. What about his or her identifying information? Do any of us have a right to make public identifying information about our relatives? Do our distant cousins have rights to privacy also?
Technology has progressed far beyond what our founding fathers ever envisioned but their concepts of protection “against unreasonable searches and seizures” are as valid today as ever before.
I do not have the answers to these questions but I will suggest that smarter minds than mine need to work together to find the answers. In fact, all of us need to be aware of the issues and, together, we should be able to find the solutions.
In the meantime, I will suggest that Ancestry DNA/Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation made the right decision when the managers wrote, “Unfortunately, it has come to our attention the site has been used for purposes other than that which it was intended, forcing us to cease operations of the site.” I know it must have been a difficult decision and I am confident their final decision is the best one possible under the circumstances.
I am also pleased the company also wrote, “There are no plans to destroy the DNA that was contributed…” Perhaps the contributed infomation can still be used in the future in a legal and moral manner after reasonable guidelines have been established.