Is history repeating itself at Ancestry?
I’ve been thinking about whether or not I should publish this posting. As I write and rewrite it, I still haven’t made up my mind. It’s one of those sticky wickets, as they are called. One of the reasons I hesitate is that I have far more questions than answers.
One of the reasons I feel like I should publish it is because we, as a community, have far more questions than answers. I’m concerned that we’re being exploited, manipulated and deceived. I feel like we’re already on the way down a slippery slope, and I fear a flush is at the bottom. If that is true, we’re entirely powerless if we don’t know about it.
Since you are reading this, I obviously decided to publish it, so I’ll let you decide for yourself.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been getting this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as Ancestry’s most recent DNA testing mess has unfolded like the leaves on the beautifully deceptive skunk plant. Yes, the skunk plant is named that for the reason you think…things just aren’t what they seem at first glance…and they smell….really smell. And by the time you figure out that you’ve made an error in judgment, you’re in the middle of a smelly mess.
This isn’t the first time that Ancestry has had some really significant problems with DNA testing and quality. However, this second time is more complex and includes ethics issues. I’m not sure where the problem lies, and maybe the answer isn’t in just one place, but multiple problems in multiple places.
Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Let’s take a look.
Ancestry and Sorenson
In 2002 Ancestry introduced DNA testing for their customers by partnering with Relative Genetics, an arm of Sorenson, which had just been formed. Of course, this was not autosomal testing, but Yline and mitochondrial DNA. To say this was unsuccessful is an understatement and being kind. Ancestry lost kits, having to eventually give refunds, “predicted” haplogroups dramatically incorrectly (paternal cousins in haplogroups R and G, respectively), and generally made a mess of DNA testing. Thankfully, they didn’t last long and one day – poof….gone. No more Ancestry.com DNA testing. The lab? Sorenson. What or where was the problem or problems? I have no idea. Just like the young girl who went away to live with “Auntie” and had a baby, it was never publicly discussed.
Let’s take a look at Sorenson.
Sorenson and GeneTree
Sorenson, www.smgf.org, was founded as a nonprofit research organization in 1999 by Mormon philanthropist, James Sorenson (deceased in 2008) in order to study the relationship between DNA and genealogy. Unlike other testing companies, initially there was no charge to submit your DNA, but you were required to include a 4 generation pedigree chart. You did not receive personal results. Your results were, in time, added with your pedigree to their data base. Their project to acquire DNA samples and pedigree charts came to an end in June 2009, and free testing was no longer available. They began selling DNA testing services through GeneTree.
In 2007, in a somewhat controversial move, since Sorenson was supposed to be nonprofit and research only, they reconfigured and “launched” GeneTree, a DNA paternity testing company that they had acquired in 2001.
In 2009, they began to offer a resource for people to be able to obtain their Sorenson results and matches for a fee. I was excited about being able to “unlock” my Sorenson matches as they advertised. I ordered this “unlock” for $39 the very first day it was available, and sure enough, I had several matches, BUT, none of them were unlocked, so I couldn’t “see” them. I was encouraged to contact my matches through an internal message system and ask them to also pay the $39 to unlock their results so we could “see each other.” I clearly didn’t understand the nature of ‘unlock”, or really, half-unlocked, when I spent my $39. However, I figured if I just waited, eventually, others would unlock theirs too. After all, it was the first day.
I didn’t have a good feeling about how this unfolded. I felt like they were just using their customers to recruit other customers AFTER they had paid their unlock fee. Kind of a mini dna pyramid scheme.
I checked back periodically, and one day, I could no longer access my results. I contacted GeneTree and was told I had never ordered the “unlock.” I sent them screen shots of my matches, which I had taken on the first day, but to no avail. I could either try to find my original receipt and use that as my next form of argument, or simply give up. I decided that since very few people were unlocking results, and none, of course, were full sequence, it was pretty much futile anyway and I didn’t spend any more time fighting with them. They obviously had no motivation to find my records and make it right. I went from feeling somewhat used by Sorenson/GeneTree to disgusted.
Ancestry’s ComeBack with Relative Genetics
After Ancestry’s first entrance and exit from the genetic genealogy playing field, they linked search-result surnames to Family Tree DNAs projects. One day in 2006, we noticed the link was gone and suspected that they were preparing to reenter the DNA testing space, and indeed they did in 2007 by purchasing Relative Genetics, their earlier partner.
I never tested at Relative Genetics, but I do understand that their clients were notified and there was an opportunity to opt out of that transfer. Many people felt this should have been handled the other way – that you should have had to “opt-in” instead of opting out.
The Relative Genetics results were transferred into an Ancestry data base. Ancestry simultaneously began their own testing program, and allowed people who tested at other labs to manually enter their data as well. This increased Ancestry’s data base so that people who tested through Ancestry had results to compare to.
Ancestry still has issues with haplogroups because they don’t test SNPS. Until they do, they will never be able to correctly assign haplogroups.
Their mitochondrial DNA matching is chronically wrong. I have no idea how they do that, but anyone could do better with a simple spreadsheet, or even visually looking at the list. Quality controls are apparently absent, in this, the most simple of tasks, and it surely calls into question the level of quality control in place for more complex tasks and matching where we can’t see all of the data. This continual problem engenders no confidence at all, and the worst part is that it has been like this now for years and they have never fixed the issues. Either their quality control is sorely lacking, or they simply don’t care.
As far as I was concerned, I was thoroughly disgusted by this point. It had become apparent that adding people to their data base, in spite of clerically introduced mutations (typos), and generating revenue was a much higher priority than providing correct data on the back end. But then again, Ancestry, in their other businesses, has never been known for accuracy or quality – only for barely-acceptable levels of mediocrity.
Of course, Ancestry has been on a shopping spree – buying up anything that smells like competition.
Ancestry Buys Sorenson and Genetree
In May of 2012, Ancestry purchased GeneTree and the genealogical and anthropological assets of Sorenson, including their DNA data base. Those of us who had contributed our DNA to Sorenson for research purposes felt betrayed and exploited. Never did we imagine, in our wildest dreams, that our DNA would wind up with a commercial entity that would use our data, that was never “released” to us, to profit. Nor were we notified. If you managed to hear about this through the genealogy grapevine, there is apparently an “opt out” option if you contact Ancestry.com. I could not find a link, but calling their support number should do it. It’s unclear whether Ancestry actually bought the Sorenson lab. Sorenson still does Forensic work and the management team at Sorenson Forensics is different than the Ancestry team.
Ancestry and Autosomal DNA Testing
In 2012, concurrent with the Sorenson/GeneTree purchase, Ancestry began to offer autosomal DNA testing, presumably using Sorenson’s lab, although I have been unable to verify that and Ancestry themselves are very tight lipped about the topic. Given the history of quality and confidence issues, many old-timers in this field were skeptical. We had hoped that perhaps Ancestry had spent enough time and investment up front that they would “get it right” this time. CeCe Moore’s first posting was exciting, and we hoped that once again, one of the companies would set a new standard for everyone to leapfrog to. It didn’t take long to discover that wasn’t the case.
If you haven’t already seen the series of blogs about Ancestry’s quality issues with autosomal testing, take a look at CeCe Moore’s blog postings about Scandinavian admixture and more recently, the horribly discouraging adoption sibling match mixup.
To me, the worst part of this mixup issue isn’t that a mistake was made. It has happened before at other labs, but the difference is that in the other case, the company, 23andMe, stepped right up to the plate, took responsibility, and fixed the issue along with the underlying problem. They didn’t try to make it someone else’s issue or pass the buck…and they were truthful.
In this case, when Ancestry was notified by the customer that an issue existed, apparently Ancestry did not take significant notice of the situation. If there is a link or escalation procedure between the support department and the lab, it apparently wasn’t initiated or didn’t work. After the customers persisted, Ancestry said they would send them a new kit, but it would be about 2 months or so before they got results. Clearly, Ancestry wasn’t concerned that they had an issue within their system someplace…or that 2 months would have shrunk into overnighting kits and an immediate lab run.
Because Ancestry does not allow people to access or download their actual raw data, as does Family Tree DNA and 23andMe, the participants were unable to verify or dispute the findings and had to rely solely on Ancestry’s fatally flawed comparison.
Out of sheer frustration, and a sense of ethics since she had initially encouraged autosomal testing through Ancestry, CeCe Moore then reported what happened on her blog. It took Ancestry another 3 full days to “discover” her post, call her and finally offer an explanation that was, in fact, significantly different than that given to the actual client whom CeCe is working with. Had Ancestry paid attention, it would never have gotten to this point. Had they listened to the customer, it would never have gotten to this point. If they allowed people access to their own data, we would have tools to help these people and it would probably never have gotten to this point. Looks like we don’t have to wonder anymore about Ancestry’s quality controls.
However, we’re not done yet. To add insult to injury, Ancestry then claimed that they discovered this error themselves, through their “quality control procedures.” Really? When did CeCe’s blog become part of Ancestry’s quality control procedure?
Here is their reply on CeCe’s blog.
“AncestryDNA, and the laboratories we work with, take the quality and accuracy of our DNA test very seriously. Through our quality control procedures, we recently discovered that a small number of customers had a problem with their DNA results due to a laboratory error. In the rare case where there is an error, we work directly with our members to correct the results, which in some cases requires a new DNA sample. We have contacted all the individuals affected by this error and are in the process of correcting it. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience and confusion that can be a result of an error and are working hard to make this right for our members in a timely manner. We appreciate everyone’s patience as we continue to fine-tune this exciting new product.”
Compare the above statement about how important quality is to Ancestry to the following section from their mandatory release that everyone has to sign when they activate the AncestryDNA autosomal DNA kit.
“In addition, we do not make any representations as to the accuracy, comprehensiveness, completeness, quality, currency, error-free nature, compatibility, security or fitness for purpose of the AncestryDNA Website, Content or Service.”
Instead of stepping up to the plate, thanking CeCe for discovering THEIR problem, apologizing and accepting responsibility, Ancestry tried to make this uncomfortable situation CeCe’s fault, saying CeCe should have called them personally instead of blogging, and then misrepresented what happened to cover the ugly truth.
CeCe discusses this phone call in a second blog about this topic. Be sure to read the comments. She is obviously not making any friends at Ancestry, but bless her for being our advocate! David staring up into the face of Goliath.
Consent and Release
In the midst of all of this, we also discovered that, according to Ancestry’s release and consent forms for autosomal DNA testing, that they can aggregate and sell our data. So they can sell our data, including our medical data, but they won’t provide the same raw data to us so we can provide at least a minimal check on their “quality control.” All of a sudden, the low price for the kit and their focus on amassing large amounts of data start to make a little more sense. Who are the customers for purchasing our data? What do they want to do with it?
Ancestry obtains consent by what could be construed as a “shady” practice of positioning the research consent and testing release agreements adjacent, not stating that the research consent is optional and inferring by industry standards that one must click to proceed. The release to sell our data is not optional. And none of this consenting happens when ordering, or prior to ordering, the kit. It happens later, after you’ve paid and received your kit, and there is a $25 charge at that point to cancel the order. Ah yes, the slippery slope.
If you’d like to hear what Dr. Ken Chahine has to say, you can see him testify before the Presidents Commission for the Study of BioEthical Issues. A transcript is here. Dr. Chahine is the senior vice president of Ancestry.com and general manager for Ancestry DNA where he leads the development and commercialization of population genetics. He is also professor of law at the University of Utah and has held various positions in the biotechnology industry including president and CEO of Avigen. He holds a PhD in Biochemistry along with a law degree. In this testimony, he says that Ancestry’s customers own their own data, but then he says the following:
“My thing — what’s interesting from a commercial standpoint is we — a lot of customers get data from either us or from other services. And what I see that’s a little disturbing sometimes is that they upload their data to sites that quite frankly I can’t even have — I try to research who these individuals are that are doing additional research on people’s data. And I’m not even sure who they are or how they’re qualified and if the data that they’re getting back are even, you know, valid, right? So the point is that I think that we are moving in a direction where consumers feel comfortable, rightly or through ignorance, uploading their data to other sites. So I do think that restricting sort of the end I think is important just to be able to take care of that issue.”
Ironic, given Ancestry’s current adoption sibling mixup, that Ken is concerned about “the data they’re getting back are even, you know, valid, right” from other resources, when the information from Ancestry itself isn’t. So apparently Ancestry is being the benevolent parent to all of us, restricting us from having access to our own data, that they say we own, while they retain the right to sell it to others. Hmmm….I smell a rat…or maybe it’s that skunk plant. Ancestry is afraid we might do something “bad” with our data, like, for example, catch their errors.
The True Cost Isn’t $99
And there is more too. It also appears that if your Ancestry subscription expires, that you no longer receive matches that you can contact. If in fact this is accurate, and there is really no way for any of us to test this right now, that was never made apparent when purchasing the kit. Apparently, you will receive the match, but you cannot contact your match unless you subscribe minimally to “Ancestry Connections” which allows limited access to family trees, photos and DNA results for $4.95 per month which equates to $59.40 per year.
So the real cost of the AncestryDNA test isn’t $99, but $99 plus either an Ancestry subscription for $155 per year for the US or $299 for the world or alternately, the cost of Ancestry Connections, $59.40 per year. It’s unclear whether or not if you only subscribe to the US Ancestry package if you only get US matches.
In any event, this subscription requirement was not made apparent up front and it dramatically changes the landscape of the cheap $99 test. It adds strings that weren’t evident up front and if you no longer maintain your subscription in some way, you lose the benefit of your DNA test and any other DNA tests you’ve paid for and are associated with your account. Ouch. How many people would have tested if they knew their results would be held hostage for the price of a subscription? And what happens to those results when you can no longer maintain your subscription? Are they just gone to you forever, but still available for Ancestry to sell and for others to see? Can someone else “adopt” them under their subscription so they can still be available for family members?
In my opinion, this is very ugly and the only benefit to anyone is to Ancestry to be able to extort subscriptions from people who want to maintain access to their DNA results, something they didn’t know they had to do when they purchased the autosomal DNA kits initially. After all, that’s not the way the Yline and mitochondrial results worked, and there was no reason to suspect that autosomal testing would work any differently. This amounts to genetic entrapment.
This is a very different model than at Family Tree DNA where results are available forever with no additional cost, and in perpetuity for the family through either private arrangements (account number and password sharing) or the Beneficiary Assignment on your personal page.
As we unearth the truth, morsel my morsel, I’m sure more information will be forthcoming as people discover what does and does not work, and under what circumstances. But isn’t it sad that we have to do this at all. Whatever happened to being forthright and upfront? I think that is called integrity isn’t it??
How Many Strikes Til You’re OUT???
By now, I’ve lost count of how many strikes Ancestry has. Where is the umpire?
Everyone and every company makes mistakes. But the difference is in how (and if) they handle those errors when they do occur.
Given that Sorenson and Ancestry had the original debacle that ended Ancestry’s early DNA testing foray, and they, together, are having another very similar-feeling debacle in 2012, I have to wonder if history is repeating itself. This difference is that this time, Ancestry is now publicly held and has invested so much money, just considering their initial give-away of 10,000 autosomal kits (about $250-300 market price each, a total of 2.5 to 3 million dollars) to build their database, that they are unlikely to exit. The DNA testing marketplace has too much potential and they have a captive audience of about 2 million subscribers. If every subscriber orders just one test of some type for about $100, that equals 200 million dollars. And corporate profit is about expending as little as possible for as much revenue as possible. Better yet, for Ancestry, DNA is a permanent hook to keep people from letting their subscriptions lapse. The percentage of people who abandon their subscriptions has declined in the past year from from 4 to 3.4%. Perhaps that is part of the reason why they are willing to sell their AncestryDNA product for $99, less than their cost of processing this test, that their two competitors sell for $289 (www.familytreedna.com) and $299 (www.23andme.com), respectively. The other reason, of course, could be that they plan to sell aggregated DNA data.
The thing I find interesting is that at least one individual was at Relative Genetics, at Sorenson/Genetree and is also now at Ancestry. Initially I thought this was a good thing, bringing Ancestry some much needed experience. Now, I’m not so sure. Like I said initially, I don’t really know where there problems lie….I just know they exist and have at some level chronically. On top of this, it seems that things are just never exactly what they seem.
The part of this that I find the most distressing is the positioning – Ancestry experienced a lab error which “they discovered and notified the people”. Not true, at least not in the adoptee’s case. Ancestry couldn’t be bothered to pay attention until CeCe blogged and embarrassed them, and then they distorted the facts. And then they had the audacity to be upset with CeCe. What is wrong with this picture?
Ancestry has positioned themselves to absorb as many DNA results as possible by purchasing other companies and nonprofits, and from the general public entering results into their data base, with little focus on accuracy, and a lot of focus on building their data base and selling kits. They are presuming that most of their customers, being DNA novices, won’t know the difference.
Ancestry has also positioned themselves to sell our results, aggregated, including those we contributed to Sorenson, a nonprofit at that time, but will not release those results to us. I’m referring here to both the Sorenson results and autosomal raw data from the AncestryDNA test.
And whatever happened to all those Genetree people who paid the $39 unlock fee? What about the records they paid to unlock and see? Maybe they just lost all the records and it’s no longer a problem.
This behavior has gone from disheartening to discouraging to disgusting to shady to reprehensible. This is the kind of behavior that eventually will cause this industry to be federally regulated, which will literally drive it out of business. Who would visit a physician to obtain a prescription for genetic genealogy testing? In order to avoid this, it’s important to self-regulate ourselves by bringing pressure for unacceptable behavior to stop.
Call to Action
So, what can we do?
- Communicate with Ancestry that their behavior regarding these issues is not acceptable. Neither is their paternalistic attitude on one hand while exploiting their customers on the other. It’s one thing, and bad enough, when dealing with submitted genealogy trees and substandard offshore records translations, but DNA testing must be held to the highest of standards. It is the sacred gift of our ancestors, the ultimate truth. As you are probably aware, Ancestry is encouraging everyone to connect their genealogy trees to their DNA results so they can be populated up the trees. It’s only a matter of time, on the present course, until they have a mess that can’t be unraveled.
- If you have taken the AncestryDNA autosomal test, request your raw data results from Ancestry. They think CeCe is a lone renegade voice. She is not. We’re a community. Call them at 800-262-3787 (regular support) 800-958-9124 (DNA support) or click on the “Beta Send Feedback” button at the top right of your DNA page. They have stated that feedback through these avenues, especially the Beta Feedback button, is how they are prioritizing their next steps for DNA. This data is yours and you have a right to have it. Furthermore, you can never verify the accuracy of what they report without it.
- Vote with your money and buy either at Family Tree DNA or 23andMe. While both have their advantages and disadvantage, neither the ethics or quality of either of those companies is being called into question. Neither requires a subscription. Family Tree DNA never has.
- Tell your friends, family and project members to do the same. Those 2 million subscribers that will potentially order DNA tests are all related to someone.
If Ancestry can’t get it right, then they shouldn’t pollute this industry for the rest of us. I hope they get it right and recover their credibility. I hope I’m wrong about the slippery slope and the flush. But I know I’m not wrong about the skunk-plant.
In the mean-time, I leave you with the saying that’s been on the wall for years at Baskin-Robbins:
“There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price alone are that person’s lawful prey.”