Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation DNA Database has been Shut Down

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 genealgists 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.

22 Comments

Some questions I did not see answered – please explain if you can.
You said “Ancestry DNA is not the biggest loser in all this” – exactly how were they “losers”? I did not know how the smgf.org site was constructed – did they do matching similar to Ancestry? What were their “services”?
Thanks.

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    In this case, Sorenson is essentially the same as Ancestry DNA. Some years ago, when Ancestry first started offering DNA services to genealogists, they contracted Sorenson for laboratory services from Sorenson and soon became Sorenson’s biggest customer. Eventually, Ancestry started managing Sorenson’s DNA services and continued to do business under both corporate names. I don’t know the wording in their contract so I cannot say if one company was purchased by the other or if it is simply a contractual agreement between two organizations. However, as far as genealogists are concerned, they are the same entity.

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Does this mean Ancestry DNA is closing also? What is their connection to Sorenson?

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I was an early DNA “donor” to Sorenson. Was told some years ago the data/information was going to be unavailable and copied my data and saved it on paper and on my computer. Did not realize it was still available. The original data was a research project to create a combined DNA data base and connected genealogy data base to help trace the origins of our ancestors. From what I have read, Ancestry has “trusted” this data is correct and based their ancestry predictions for their members on it. Not sure that is a valid premise.

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    I thought our DNA information was lost. Do you know if there’s a way we can access it? I never got my results & would love to get them. Thanks.

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I too gave a blood “donation”, long ago, not even thinking I would receive the results. Like Jay I saved my DNA profile when it was offered. I would imagine that tests today use more alleles than they did then. I appreciate and have high regard for James LeVoy Sorenson and Professor Dr. Scott Woodward.

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Dick, I know this is confusing because people often say just plain “Sorenson” and don’t complete the phrase. Sorenson Genomics and Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SGMF) are two distinct entities, and Ancestry.com did not acquire Sorenson Genomics.

When Ancestry.com was doing Y and mtDNA testing, they did contract with Sorenson Genomics (which also does contract testing for other genetic genealogy companies). At one point Sorenson Genomics performed contract testing for SMGF, but in later years, SMGF contracted with another source to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest for its non-profit status.

Sorenson Genomics is not performing the current autosomal testing for Ancestry.com.

The ISOGG Wiki has more details. I see the entry now needs updating to include the latest news.

http://www.isogg.org/wiki/Sorenson_Genomics

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Am I the only person who thoroughly read the 23andMe agreement.
I signed the agreement with the understanding a legal entity could access the results of my DNA test. I do not have a criminal background so I had no reason to object. I think it is reasonable for law enforcement to use my results to identify me, or a relative.

The following is copied from the Terms of Service portion of the agreement:
7. 23andMe Privacy Statement and Disclosure of Information
23andMe will never release your individual-level Genetic Information and/or Self-Reported Information to any third party without asking for and receiving your explicit consent to do so, unless required by law. Further, you acknowledge and agree that 23andMe is free to preserve and disclose any and all Personal Information to law enforcement agencies or others if required to do so by law or in the good faith belief that such preservation or disclosure is reasonably necessary to: (a) comply with legal process (such as a judicial proceeding, court order, or government inquiry) or obligations that 23andMe may owe pursuant to ethical and other professional rules, laws, and regulations; (b) enforce the 23andMe TOS; (c) respond to claims that any content violates the rights of third parties; or (d) protect the rights, property, or personal safety of 23andMe, its employees, its users, its clients, and the public. In such event we will notify you through the contact information you have provided to us in advance, unless doing so would violate the law or a court order.

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    Leaving your results in a online database in 2015 is a bad idea.. for a multitude of reasons. Not the least is that health related SNP’s will be refined in a way we cant imagine today, and once this gets ‘into the wild’ you cant do anything about it and it will affect your children, grandchildren and collateral family lines without federal law refinements that are not likely to happen.

    Use it for what your purpose are, copy it, then delete it. While a 80 year old pensioner may not care what happens to their data, it will eventually affect a lot of other relatives and its being commoditized in a way that no one would have accepted or predicted back in the early era of SMGF. My concern is that no third party should legally be able to BUY my results, let alone sell of trade them from a ‘non profit’ source to a ‘for profit’ company.

    Very few people would have ‘donated’ samples to SMGF if they knew or suspected they would assemble a portfolio of results and then use it cash out financially, by passing this package to a for profit company. This clearly should not be legal without a signed release from EACH donor / acct holder, yet it is – this tells you in and of itself why you have no protection as pertains to some of your most intimate data, and why its a bad idea to allow a private entity to control or hold autosomal data – 23andMe is about the worst in my opinion, due to its affiliations, however any of these companies have significant abuse potential in light of the fact that no definitive federal criminal protections exist for how this data can be used, traded, sold, stored or utilized.

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The question of DNA becoming legal for a criminal case becomes where will they draw the line. Fine if you commit murder but what if the government decides to use it against you because they don’t like your view of the world or your genes.

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“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 am also pleased the company also wrote, “There are no plans to destroy the DNA that was contributed…”

If you notice, this is not in any way a noble act on behalf of a for profit entity due to circumstances beyond its control.. it appears to me quite the opposite and seems purely opportunistic.

What IS valuable to AncestryDNA are the genetic results it bought. To my recollection, Sorenson had stopped taking ‘free’ contributions of samples long before Ancestry somehow exerted the right to BUY a not for profit entity that people had donated a ton of teir samples to = Ancestry is not giving up its control, access, use or rights to those samples, which were the valuable asset within SMGF. Ancestry is KEEPING THE GOODIES for itself, its simply cutting off the access to the goodies to the unwashed masses who dont pay them.

Also, the excuse offered by the anomaly that took place involving the warrant for genetic material is not affected or altered in any way by taking offline the results or access to SMGF database searches. Ancestry , and all such services, will quite readily divulge any material they have in response to a warrant. Shutting off public access only makes the non paying public and sample submitters unable to access the material – it does not stop any and ALL future warrant requests. In the case of claimed ‘domestic security’ warrants or demand letters, you wont even know that they coughed up your data, because a automatic gag order accompanies the ‘warrant’, which is mass signed and virtually never declined or altered in scope.

If Ancestry was being motivated by NOBLE concerns it would not only cut off the site access to its former users, it would also destroy all genetic results it holds to ensure that mean old snoopers cant demand the data.. It is keeping the material that is valuable to its own purposes and using a anomalous case to justify getting rid of the ‘freeloaders’ who dare to use their won formerly donated samples without paying the new ‘owner’ of their samples for the privilege.

In reality, it should be made impossible and illegal to ‘sell’ any genetic samples donated or submitted for paid assessments, without the express written consent obtained from EACH donor or submitter. These were not the samples OWNED by SMGF let alone ANCESTRY, these were samples from individuals who agreed to participate in a non profit effort that suited their interests and the Mormon interests of the non profit, and the samples should have been destroyed unless EACH AND EVERY OWNER gave consent to their transfer to a unaffiliated non profit. I am not at all pleased with Ancestry, they kept what they valued in the first place and they made a excuse to dump that which gave away their formerly non-profit results, while maintaining all future access to warrants from legal authorities that they used to justify their actions in the first place. SHAME.

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Thanks to Dick Eastman for providing that link to The Legal Genealogist. I followed that link and I read the entire story, which gave me great comfort. I think that perhaps the protestors who are convinced that the sky is falling have not read (and digested) the entire Legal Genealogist story.

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David E. Dillman May 19, 2015 at 8:18 am

Thank you, Dick. I have written critically here and elsewhere of Ancestry’s actions in this instance. It seems with the taking of Sorenson offline, they have simply compounded their earlier mistakes. If the misuse of the database they refer to was by the authorities, … removing access for us genealogists does nothing to prevent it occurring again. Ancestry still has the database and specimens, and legal entities can walk in with another warrant anytime they choose. The genealogy community Ancestry so cherishes are the only people denied access. Frankly, it smells of spite. Ancestry seems to want to take their ball and go home, … but the “ball” in this case is OUR genetic code, customers of theirs and other DNA analysis services.

I long ago downloaded my genetic files from the three services who tested me. I never deluded myself to think there would be privacy in any of them. And while I was disappointed that Ancestry rolled over to give DNA data without a whimper to the authorities, this is a more severe slap at the very customer base Ancestry claims to serve.

Their motives seem highly suspect, and their explanations leave more questions than answers. They could have donated Sorenson to a university or other non-profit, … taken the tax deductions and walked away. Instead, they took this incredible resource. which they did nothing to help create, and denied its use forever to the public.

Bad form, Ancestry. Bad form indeed!

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I contacted SMGF and Ancestry.com several times to get copies of my profile, and a copy of my cousin’s profile (I had requested the DNA with permission) and was told I couldn’t get either one, so I never got the info promised. How can I get this info NOW ? I want the info and do not want to hear I can’t get it.

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Why is AncestryDNA still being advertised and promoted on their site if it has been shut down? I did this with my son and it gave us some really good insights into our genealogy.

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I contacted Ancestry today.. their answer:When Ancestry acquired records of DNA from the Gene Tree Project, there was a message sent to all the participants. This message provided instructions to have the DNA results transferred to Ancestry.com. If you did not follow the steps to have your results transferred to an Ancestry account, the results are no longer available. We apologize for any frustration this may cause. If you would like to submit feedback about your experience, we invite you to please review the following Help article. It offers options for submitting feedback.
I HAVE NEVER EVER received any Mail. to provide instructions for transferring results to Ancestry.. so all my effort to send my test to Sorenson.. is somewhere in Cyberspace??
This is not nice!

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    Well said. I agree completely. Not fair at all and in my opinion betrayed our confidence.

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    I wonder IF they ever read the comments.. a genuine disgrace.. taking your DNA.. where is it now?? i never gave permission to SELL or DO what they want them to do with it.!

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    I never received a letter also. I did have an ancestry account. I guess they wouldn’t have transferred the data automatically?

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judyg17@juno.com I Judith K Gass contributed to this site my DNA in a kit they sent me and I was told it would be available to me? I never received anything this was in 2007 I would like to have copy of whatever they came up with, How do I get that now . I would think they would have had an obligation to return any findings . We did not get paid for this

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Armin Andreas Hollas April 18, 2016 at 8:52 am

Where did the smf database go?

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