More from the series
DNA for Sale
Paul B. Allen was there during the early days of Ancestry.com, when he helped launch a company to popularize family history research, and do it on a newfangled platform — the Internet.
Since the 1990s, he has watched Ancestry evolve from scrappy Utah start-up to Wall Street darling, adding one of world’s fastest-growing consumer services, DNA testing, to its records-search capabilities.
He talks like a proud father, but he is also torn up by what his corporate offspring has become.
“It is actually very painful to see a company bought and sold by private equity, without regard to founders, employees and customers,” Allen said while sitting at a picnic table near the company’s old corporate headquarters in Provo.
Officials for Ancestry LLC, the parent company of AncestryDNA, say that customer trust is a top priority, one reason that more than 9 million people have spit in a tube and paid $70 to $100 to have their genetic data analyzed by the Utah-based company. Ancestry has also procured one of the world’s largest storehouses of public records and other genealogical data, which has given it a loyal following among people researching their family history.
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.
“With impunity, corporations can change the terms of engagement even after publicly stating: ‘Here is our plan, here is our agreement,’” Allen said.
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.
Numerous customers were outraged, noting that the company’s website had promised not only unlimited storage space, but technology to “keep all of your family memories safe and secure. No matter what.”
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.”
One year later, Ancestry.com made a similarly abrupt decision with a publicly available DNA database it had acquired from the Sorenson Molecular Genealogical Foundation in 2012.
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.”
Woodward says he still hears blowback from genealogists and others about the company’s decision.
“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. “
Two weeks before publication, McClatchy sent Ancestry questions about its handling of the FamilyTree.com and Sorenson cases, but only received a response late Tuesday, after the first story in this series launched.
“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.
Ancestry says it has since been working to rebuild RootsWeb with better security, but it has not yet restored it. Some genealogists say the shutdown should serve as a lesson.
“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 1988 speech by Brigham Young University President Jeffrey R. Holland inspired the idea, prompting Allen and another BYU graduate, Dan Taggart, to launch a company called Infobases in 1990.
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.
Jenn Utley, a family historian who has worked at Ancestry since 1997, credits Allen and Taggart for recognizing the potential of harnessing new technology in the cause of researching people’s roots.
“They saw this new ‘internet thing’ was going to be huge for the field of genealogy, which it has been,” said Utley. “It has completely revolutionized the field of 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.
“When we started this company, we were not about exploitation. We were about helping people make connections and strengthen family ties.”
“I am not sure,” he said.
Coming tomorrow: Ancestry claims it can accurately analyze your ethnicity. Can it?