There are so many technological innovations that have become a part of family history research. These include online databases of vital records and other documents. Hand-writing recognition tools to help decipher and index census images. And personal DNA test kits to help understand your ethnic background as well as connect you with relatives you never knew before.
While the technology itself is innocent, how it is used opens up an entire Pandora’s box of issues and ethical questions. DNA test results are the most problematic since the data is, after all, the ESSENCE of a person. They are the ultimate identifier. They are unique just like you. And the same data that advances the ability to better understand ourselves, our heritage, and our family… can be used to implicate a person in a criminal cold case or discriminate against those with certain ethnicities or even specific medical conditions.
Should You Document Your DNA Test Results?
I’ve been testing my own DNA since 2008 when AncestryDNA was still in beta test mode. I’ve tested with all the major companies, and I’ve not only compiled the results, but I have also documented the process for each test.
As I tell my followers, genealogical and family history research is not just names and dates. I want to “fill in the dash” meaning what happens between the birth date and death date for a person. This includes me and my life story. I am leaving a legacy for future generations of family members as well as researchers. So, I definitely am in favor of sharing my DNA results and journey with others.
DNA test results can cause a major “shift change” in research for some. Each week it seems that there is a media story about an adoptee locating birth family, or a person discovering that their grandfather had other children that were not documented. With a belief that “knowledge is power” I always make sure that I put my DNA test results to good use, but responsibly. Once my results are available, I download the data and secure it. Going forward I make sure that what I share does not compromise my own privacy or the privacy of those with whom I connect.
What Should You Share and What Should You Keep Private?
Your level of sharing when it comes to DNA test results depends on your comfort level. Most of the personal DNA test kit vendors allow you to “opt out” of sharing results with other testers in order to look for a “match.” Some testers even go so far as using a fake name and a “burner” email address for anonymity. Remember: your data, your choice.
I feel comfortable sharing my ethnicity breakdown with family and even publicly. I also always opt in to the “matching” aspect at each DNA vendor with whom I’ve tested since it has led to many advances in my genealogy research.
I don’t share the medical and health related aspects of my DNA especially on social media. While here in the US health insurance companies cannot use DNA test results in determining your coverage, there is no law preventing life insurance companies from doing so.
Best Practices for Getting the Most Out of Your DNA Test Results
Here’s my advice on the best ways to work with your DNA test results. The goal is to preserve and document the process and results in a way that still ensures your privacy and the privacy of others.
Record the Story
- Write or record the story of why you wanted to take a DNA test, the process, and the results. Make sure you cover which DNA testing company you used, why you selected that company, how the test kit worked, and the anticipation of waiting for the results. Check out my AncestryDNA Artifct where I followed my own advice!
- In your story also describe your reaction to the results. Were you surprised by anything? Did the results run counter to a family story or your genealogy research? Did the results put you on the path to a new research journey?
- Use photos when possible including the test kit and a screen capture of the ethnicity results. Also consider sharing your haplogroup information so you can connect with others in the same group. However, don’t share detailed results including chromosomes and mapping and other information.
- Keep in mind that ethnicity results can change over time. What? That’s right, over time your ethnicity results may change due to more and more people testing their DNA. This means more results in the databases and a “refinement” of results. Example: Instead of just being Western European, you may see a breakdown of results listing percentage of French or German ethnicity.
Benefit from the Best of Social Media
- If you are a social media user, remember to ask others with whom you “match” before you post results publicly. If you locate a new cousin, don’t automatically take a screen capture of the match listing the cMs (centimorgans) and their name. When it comes to DNA results it is better to ask for permission rather than forgiveness later. The Internet is a “copy machine” and once posted it is almost impossible to remove that information.
One neat way to document and share the ethnicity breakdown based on your DNA test results is to create a colorful print that includes the world map marking the regions related to your background. Family ChartMasters is a US-based company that lets you enter your ethnicity information and generates an amazing Personalized DNA Ethnicity Chart measuring 20” x 24” and suitable for framing. The staff at Family ChartMasters are super helpful and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more >
DNA testing is still an emerging technology especially for family history enthusiasts. Each week the media offers stories of incredible family reunions as well as the heartbreak of learning a truth that conflicts with the belief in a family story passed down for generations.
Remember that these are YOUR DNA test results and you have the ability to use them wisely. Do so in a way that you can share them as part of your legacy story yet still ensure the privacy aspects of such data.
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