SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Do you ever wonder where you came from? A growing number of DNA ancestry companies now promise to reveal your true ethnic origin.
But how accurate are they? That’s what Amy Jones wondered after her ancestry tests revealed she was Irish.
“I called my mother, I called my father, and I said listen we’re Irish!” Jones recalled. “And they said, ‘Are we really?’ And I said, ‘that’s what it says.’ So, I’m assuming that’s right.”
THE DNA QUAD TEST
But unlike the thousands of others who have submitted their samples to DNA ancestry sites, Amy happens to have access to a unique DNA test sample.
Affectionately called the Jones Quad Squad, Jones has quadruplet children: two identical (Gabe and Seth) and two fraternal (Katie and Hugh). So, with the help of the Quad Squad, KPIX put two DNA heritage companies to the test: Ancestry DNA and 23andMe.
In an effort to conceal the fact that they were genetically matched, KPIX 5 changed the kids’ names and ethnicities and sent in their DNA samples from different cities.
While results did vary between the two ancestry sites, the identical twins’ DNA results were nearly identical to each other.
That made Jones feel a bit more certain about the accuracy of her own test results.
“I was surprised that I was 35 percent Irish. They were even higher than I was, that really surprised me,” Jones said.
Also surprising: on 23andMe, Katie was significantly more British and Irish than her brothers and nearly twice as much as the identical twins.
We brought the results to forensic DNA expert Dr. Ruther Ballard, an expert witness and professor of Biological Sciences at California State University in Sacramento.
“You would expect there to be differences and I would have been very surprised if this had come back without any,” said Ballard.
She noted that while identical twins share nearly the same DNA, fraternal twins should differ a bit, getting more DNA from either mom or dad.
Ballard said that overall, DNA heritage tests are pretty accurate and will become more accurate as more people submit samples and the DNA databases grow.
But Ballard warns not everyone is always happy with their DNA heritage results.
“Be prepared to find out something that may not be comfortable for you,” Ballard explained.
She warned that these tests can have consequences for those who aren’t fully informed. Learning that you’re not the ethnicity you thought you were can be disheartening.
However, the DNA matching feature can also have much greater consequences.
The tests may expose surprise sperm or egg donors, adopted children who don’t want to be found and have even revealed deep dark family secrets.
“It can show non paternity and other issues in your family,” added Ballard.
Amy was shocked to see that the kid’s fake names were listed as DNA matches on her Ancestry DNA account even though we had used fake information and selected every available privacy setting before submitting their DNA. Ancestry DNA also revealed to the kids that Amy was their mom based on the DNA samples Amy had submitted years ago.
“That concerns me,” Jones said, adding that she had only intended to find out more about her own ethnicity. She never considered the implications of the genetic match feature.
“I thought that might be kinda fun to know where I come from… that’s all the information I’m seeking,” said Jones.
ANCESTRY ANNOUNCES DNA MATCH CHANGE
Whether or not they’re looking for relatives, Ancestry DNA users have been revealing to strangers around the world that they might be related. By simply submitting a sample, they have been agreeing to participate in Ancestry’s DNA Match feature.
Users do have the option to use a pseudonym however and block potential relatives who reach out to them through the site. Both Ancestry DNA and 23andMe also allow users to limit how much “other” information they provide (i.e. age, family history, personal attributes, etc.).
23andMe goes one step further and requires users to opt-in before the company will share any information with potential DNA relatives. However, when we submitted the samples to Ancestry DNA, they did not even provide the option to opt out.
We first questioned the company about the privacy implications earlier this year. This week the company announced a policy change, telling KPIX:
“Ancestry matches all its users against one another in our database. This is a fundamental aspect of the service and is necessary for us to provide our various ethnic regions, genetic communities, and other features of the service. Prior to November 2, 2017, customers choices as to whether they were able to see their DNA matches was limited. Today, customers have the ability to decide whether or not they wish to see (and be seen by) their DNA matches.”
Unlike 23AndME which requires users to proactively opt-in, it appears Ancestry DNA customers must opt-out of the DNA Match feature if they’d like to keep their profiles hidden from potential DNA matches. Still, comments on the company’s website indicate many existing customers are upset by the change.
“I’m so crushed to see this. Such a tremendous loss to those who are on here due to the greatest need – the adoption community…”wrote a user who gave their name as “4nrose.”
“I agree this is a terrible change and the power of Ancestry’s DNA testing is greatly diminished” added Sharlene K. Miller.
OTHER PRIVACY CONCERNS
It is important to note that the ancestry companies may keep your DNA and/or personal information on file indefinitely. This is a concern for some because that information may be subject to subpoena.
“I do caution people to look at those privacy settings and decide how much information they want to give,” Ballard warned.
23andMe told KPIX 5 that it “uses all legal measures to resist any and all requests for information in order to protect the privacy of its customers” and outlines its policy in their Transparency Report.
Ancestry DNA also has a Transparency Report and adds “we have received requests for information related to fraud cases but not for things related to customer DNA.”
Both Ancestry DNA and 23AndMe also tell KPIX that they will honor a user’s request to delete an account and destroy their DNA.