Dna-testing company ancestry has history of breaking promises to customers mcclatchy washington bureau mail database

But over the last five years, the company has reneged on promises to customers and partners. Allen and other former employees say this backtracking raises questions about whether the company will follow through on consumer privacy pledges as it develops the world’s largest DNA database.

In 1998, when Allen was CEO, Ancestry.com launched MyFamily.com, a social network people could use to research their extended families. It was an immediate hit, attracting a reported 1 million registered users in 140 days. By 2004, the year Facebook had first launched, MyFamily.com had attracted 1.5 million users, who posted photos and documents and shared family stories, aided by the databases and search abilities that Ancestry.com had developed.

Flash forward to 2014 — after Ancestry briefly had become a publicly traded company before being acquired by a private equity group.


That was the year when the company announced it was closing down MyFamily.com. Customers were given a few months to download photos, but the company did not give customers any easy way to preserve conversations and exchanges.

Allen, who had left Ancestry.com a decade earlier, was one of those angry users. "My wife and her sisters had 88,000 messages they had shared with each other over a 17-year period," he said. "That is family history, and it got destroyed and along with everyone else’s family history."

The database, the outgrowth of a project launched by the late Utah billionaire James L. Sorenson, collected DNA samples and family histories from 100,000 people worldwide, ranging from West Africa to Mongolia. Participants signed consent forms in which Sorenson pledged their DNA would be part of a public database that could be used worldwide for science and family research.

In 2015, however, police in Idaho accessed the Sorenson database in an attempt to identify a suspect in a 1996 cold-case murder. The police intrusion resulted in a false match — with an innocent New Orleans man questioned in the case. It also generated negative publicity for Ancestry.com, which decided that year to put the public portions of the Sorenson database behind a firewall.

Scott Woodward, the former executive director of the Sorenson Molecular Genealogical Foundation, said Ancestry had signed a contract with the foundation, saying it would continue to make the database public. But in 2015, the company announced it could no longer do so, saying "the site has been used for purposes other than what was intended."

"Those were things that greatly concerned us at SMGF," said Woodward, who had worked at Ancestry for two years after the acquisition in 2012. "The contract said that data would continue to be available, and Ancestry would keep it up. They didn’t. They decided it was a bigger risk to them, having it up. "

“Ancestry has always used the latest technology of the time to help people make new and powerful discoveries about their family history and identity," said a statement from an Ancestry spokesman. "As we evolve to deepen our product, we always strive to steward our customers’ data with integrity and respect.”

Ancestry’s critics say the company has a history of acquiring public genealogy assets and then making them inaccessible. One of these was Family Tree Maker, a popular genealogy software it discontinued in 2015. Late last year, the company also shut down RootsWeb, a free genealogy community, after hackers broke into the site and compromised the sign-ins of 300,000 users, including 55,000 that were registered Ancestry.com users.

"All of us need to think about how we can protect and preserve for the future all of the hard work we’ve put into our family history websites, particularly if we’ve chosen to put them on free websites that could well disappear without notice," wrote Judy G. Russell, author of the Legal Genealogist blog.

According to Allen, Ancestry’s origins had little to do with family history. Instead, they sprang from the idealistic goal of connecting people with all of the world’s most important writings. A 1990 speech by Brigham Young University President Rex E. Lee inspired the idea, prompting Allen and another BYU graduate, Dan Taggart, to launch a company called Infobases that year.

As it grew, the company started focusing more on genealogy, finding there was a hungry market for U.S. census and family history records, which Allen and Taggart initially sold on compact disks. In 1996, it started putting these records online at Ancestry.com, an early marriage of the internet and genealogy.

Yet neither Taggart nor Allen survived in the company they launched. Allen left in 2002, after the dot-com bubble exploded, demolishing scores of internet companies. From 2009 to 2012, Ancestry became a publicly traded company, and in 2012 launched its current DNA-testing services. It has since soared with private investment, mainly from equity fund companies such as SilverLake and GIC. Both equity funds stand to score a windfall if the company launches a new IPO (initial public offering), as it is expected to, possibly this year.

Because of its home base in Utah, Ancestry is often regarded as a "Mormon company," in part because has collaborated with the Church of Latter Day Saints on genealogical data, and has drawn part of its workforce from Mormon universities. But Allen, a practicing Mormon, insists the company never received investment or direction from the LDS church. If anything, he said, the current company is more shaped by Silicon Valley than Salt Lake City and the church, with its long history of researching family histories.

On a recent weekday in Provo, Allen strolled around the grounds of the company’s old office complex, which has sat empty since Ancestry moved in 2016 to a sparkling new headquarters in Lehi, 16 miles to the northwest. The visit, he said, brought back a stream of memories.

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