Dancing with the Devil: The Tradeoffs of Modern Genealogical Research

Dancing with the Devil: The Tradeoffs of Modern Genealogical Research

There’s a saying that goes back to the original dot com boom: If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. In modern Genealogical research, it’s important to know that not only are you (and your data) the product, you are usually also paying for the product!

In many ways genealogy hasn’t changed much since the explosion of family history research in the late 1800’s. When my Great Grandmother Myra (Tradewell) Morse completed her application for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1904 she leveraged many of the same resources I use today: vital records from various courthouses, cemetery research, family heirlooms (like bibles), and Federal military service records. Those sources are largely still available to me today, and I can pursue them just like she did, largely without the involvement of any other group.

However, modern genealogical research makes MANY more sources available to you, and you can do more research in a short period than Myra Morse could have done in her entire lifetime. But most of these new sources come with a catch: to use them, you are often serving someone else’s agenda, for better or worse.

Some of the tradeoffs are common and obvious. Ancestry.com needs more subscribers to have the content necessary to attract more subscribers, so your $19.99/month is not as valuable to them than your contributions to the community. Some of the links however, aren’t as obvious.

Newcomers to genealogy are often struck by the high level of involvement by the Mormon church. Many of the documents that have been microfilmed/digitized over the last century were sponsored by the Mormons, who also have both the largest family history library on the planet (FHL) and the worlds largest network of branch libraries lending many of those collected materials.

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I have at least 10 Family History Centers within an hour of my house. Thanks Church of Latter Day Saints!

It seems that everywhere you turn, there’s further Mormon involvement in this journey, however, that’s not because the church supports this hobby per se, or that one of the founders was interested in genealogy so the church picked up that interest. The Mormon’s are heavily involved in tracing family roots due to their doctrine of “Proxy Baptism” which holds that souls that have passed continue to have the ability to make choices, but those souls cannot choose to be Mormon if they died before being baptized into the faith. The Latter Day Saints have built massive, detailed, and accurate family trees in an attempt to identify every person ever born, and have set out to baptize a living church member today as a proxy for identified ancestors who’ve passed away previous to hearing the Mormon gospel. That proxy baptism will grant the ancestor the choice to accept the teachings of the Mormon church, and enter heaven, posthumously.

So, while you have access to a literal treasure of information about your family history (and I mean that…who else would have ever cared about the Mississippi Enumeration of Educable Children, 1850-1892; 1908-1957 and microfilmed it for me so I could solve huge mysteries about one branch of Michael’s family tree!!!) you have to understand that the work you do with that information will eventually, if all goes to plan, result in your ancestors being baptized into the Mormon faith. For some that’s an issue (A Twist on Posthumous Baptisms Leaves Jews Miffed at Mormon Rite), while for others there’s no concern about their ancestors potentially having another choice of savior after death. Either way though, it’s probably best to understand the motivations behind the groups “helping” you in this process, to make sure that you’re comfortable with the direction they’re helping you pull.

Another tradeoff you’ll likely face is related to DNA testing. DNA testing is an amazingly powerful tool that will only continue to revolutionize genealogical research. While DNA testing comes with it’s own challenges (Dangers of DNA Testing), the testing companies add another level of concern when it comes to these home testing kits.

AncestryDNA has become the major revenue generator for Ancestry.com, and 23and Me’s entire business model is based on the money made from genealogical DNA testing. However, that revenue isn’t generated by the $99/test you pay to have the get your results since that $99 doesn’t even cover the cost of the test. These companies make money selling access to your DNA by various drug, health, and research organizations. The bigger their database, the more valuable that database is, so all efforts are geared towards growing the number of samples they have access to.

Here’s an article from Wired that highlights the true value of the DNA that you paid to have gathered:

The logic behind these partnerships is clear: Companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA have spent years getting people to swab the inside of their cheeks and spit into vials, and all of those samples are valuable.

The tradeoff for you as a researcher is that while you gain access to an amazingly powerful tool, while at the same time you agree to expose you and your family’s DNA to 3rd party entities that help generate huge profits for AncestryDNA and 23andMe. Additionally, it explains why all of these companies efforts are focused on the flashy “benefits” you get (Ethnicity Estimates and Health Screens), but much less effort is invested in helping you understand the results or how to leverage the results once you’ve given them the DNA data the need.

I have personally done as much opting out of allowing my DNA samples to participate  in these for-profit 3rd party research efforts as possible, but we need to understand that they still can sell our data in aggregate and that they can change the terms of the terms and conditions of your sample to ignore your consent in the future. I have seen reports that they have have already completed full genetic sequences (vs. the normal, limited genealogical sequencing) on our samples to specifically provide data for Parkinson’s research. Ironically while AncestryDNA has done the work on the samples we paid to have collected, and have sold that data to big pharma, you can’t even gain access to your own full genomic data! The Terms and Conditions limit what you’ll receive, and you have no rights beyond that.

It’s possible to remove your physical sample from AncestryDNA’s labs, and scrub the information from their database, but then the tradeoff is you’ll have to re-test if new technologies/strategies become available. You will also lose the benefit of your DNA linking you to future tests since you will no longer be in the database. Combine that with the fact that over time you are going to have samples of relatives that have passed away, so samples can’t be re-gathered, and these companies know you’re probably not going to remove your data once it’s in the system.

Just because you’re serving someone else’s agenda, it doesn’t mean that there is malicious intent or that you should avoid those compromises. However, just like it’s important to understand the source of a fact before you accept it and apply it to your ancestors, it’s important to understand the motivations behind those providing some of our modern genealogical records as those records become more and more integral to your family tree.

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