Family Tree DNA and GedMatch Dustup

crystal ball

The Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse

It’s really unfortunate that a “conversation” that should have been private has gone public, but it has and there is no closing the barn door after the cow has left.

Genetic genealogy, and genealogy, is a highly emotional topic. Many of us feel very strongly, myself included.  After all, it’s our ancestors, flesh and blood we’re talking about.

I know that many people look to my blog for direction and commentary on these matters, so I feel obligated to say something.

For those who are not aware, in the past few days, GedMatch has stopped accepting Family Tree DNA autosomal data file uploads.  Circumstances and timing of events beyond that are murky at best and involve a bit of a “he said – she said” type of situation.  So, I’m not going to fuel any flames by reposting anything because I can’t verify the timing or order since I was not online when it occurred.  If you are a GedMatch user, you can see their announcement and commentary, which is what sparked the public portion of this issue, after signing on to your account and you can see Family Tree DNA’s responses and commentary to GedMatch’s posting on their Facebook page.

In summary, Family Tree DNA became aware of a potential security issue relative to their customer information at GedMatch and reached out to GedMatch to resolve the issue.  From that point forward, what actually happened is unclear, is only known to the “people in the room” at the time and judging from the outcome, may well involve some confusion or misinterpretation.  In any event, the resolution did not occur and GedMatch posted that they were no longer accepting uploads from Family Tree DNA.  (For the record, I am not one of the “people in the room,” so I, like you, don’t know.)

Unfortunately, this announcement fueled rampant speculation and outrage online and does nothing to resolve the potential problem for people whose kits are already being utilized on GedMatch.

So, here’s what I can and can’t tell you, and why.

What I can tell you:

This is not an issue with an individual having or sharing their DNA files.  You can still download your autosomal DNA files from Family Tree DNA.  This is not about paternalism or someone telling you what you should or shouldn’t do.  This is not about the DNA itself.  This is about security and privacy.  Period.

What I can’t tell you:

Having worked in a technology industry for years, I cannot responsibly tell you “the problem,” at least not until it’s resolved, or why it’s a potential problem, because it would then become open season for people to attempt to exploit the potential problem. And yes, they would try, in a heartbeat – just because.  This is why neither GedMatch nor Family Tree DNA have elaborated on this part of the issue.  They are being responsible, but unfortunately, their intentional and responsible ambiguity is feeding rather wild speculation in the larger community – and none of it positive.

No Crystal Ball

No one has a crystal ball. What is perfectly fine one day may not be the next due to changes beyond any one individual or firm’s control.  What is completely secure under one circumstance may not be when you add another vendor or service into the mix.  It happens continually in our high-tech world and it’s not intentional or due to negligence on anyone’s part.  Sometimes issues or potential issues don’t become evident immediately.  When they do, it’s incumbent upon the involved parties to resolve the problem or potential problem.  Where there is more than one party involved, it makes the situation inherently more difficult and calls for cooperation, which is where we are today.

What To Do

The good thing about social media is that it makes communications immediate. The bad thing about social media is that it’s very easy for misinformation and speculation to run like wildfire and to quickly take on the context of fact, fuel everyone’s emotions, and for a mob mentality to take over.  Don’t believe me?  Just look at the political rhetoric and associated “spin” this year, regardless of your position.

Here’s the bottom line. No one really knows what is going on.  Even the parties on both sides really only know “their” side and there are two sides to every story.  For outsiders, which means all of us, to jump into the fray is like the distant family taking sides in a family squabble.  Almost everyone has the information wrong, or only part of the information, but everyone has a very strong opinion based on what they think they know.  Agendas come into play and it gets ugly, very ugly, very quickly, which is again, where we are today.  I have been utterly horrified at some of the vitriol I’ve seen online.

The people who have figured out the problem, and there are a few, generally technology professionals, are doing what they should do and keeping their mouths shut. Let me translate this – they are more concerned for our security and well-being than the perception of the online community that they were “right.”   To those people, from all of us, thank you for your professionalism.

The other bad thing about social media is that even when the problem goes away, the hard feelings generated by speculation and misinformation don’t. The damage done by jumping to early, incorrect conclusions and fueling vilifying social rhetoric may never be undone either.  Damaging, or attempting to damage either party socially or otherwise is not beneficial to a resolution and may actually hinder the resolution that we want to see.  This ultimately damages all of genetic genealogy.

What I’m saying is this: We can’t do anything to actively “help” but we can certainly negatively impact the situation.  We really don’t know what is going on, and as such, should not be speculating or arriving at premature conclusions.  Rampant speculation is not helpful, is inaccurate and has the potential to make the situation much worse.  As a community, we need to give these firms some time and space without fueling the emotional flames which may indeed make their negotiations or communications, or whatever needs to happen, more difficult.

So, in the vernacular of my parenting, I’m asking us all to calm down, take a deep breath and a personal timeout:)  Let’s find something else fun and productive to do for a few days and leave GedMatch and Family Tree DNA alone, relative to this topic.  They have both stated that they want to resolve this situation.  Both of the companies are listening to us, are well-intentioned and engaged, which is far more than we receive from other companies in this field.  What more can we ask at this point?

I have every confidence that both of these firms are committed to genetic genealogists and want to resolve this issue – and that they will, given some time and space out from under the microscope and spotlight.  I’m sure they understand how the community feels regarding this issue – so at this point there is no need to say any more unless the issue isn’t resolved.

In this same vein, I apologize to my sane and rational commenters, but the comments portion of this blog posting is closed. I do not want to add to the online rhetorical issue.  If you have something to say to either party, then send it, in a polite and civil manner that would not embarrass your grandmother, directly to the parties involved.

Update 3-19-2016 – A joint announcement from GedMatch and Family Tree DNA this afternoon:

Family Tree DNA and GEDmatch jointly announce that we are in serious conversations regarding issues that have resulted in GEDmatch discontinuing uploads of FTDNA data. Both companies recognize the importance of these talks to their customers and are committed to quickly resolve differences. We regret any inconvenience that may have been caused and assure our users that our primary focus and efforts are geared toward your benefit.