Surname DNA Projects: Protecting Your Tree From a Meddling Administrator

The names in this post have been changed to protect the innocent.

Here’s what happened to me as a member of a family surname DNA project. I have taken the “Family Finder” (autosomal) DNA test with FTDNA, and have joined several surname DNA projects.

  • On January 9, I received an email from FTDNA telling me that I had been added to the family tree of (let’s call him) John Doe. I was already aware that John Doe and I are an autosomal match. The co-administrator of the Doe Surname DNA project had pointed the match out to me in recent email correspondence about other issues.
  • I checked out John Doe’s tree that he has posted at FTDNA. I can do that from my FTDNA account by going to my Family Finder matches, locating John Doe in the list, and clicking on the chart icon to the right of his name. Lo and behold, there I was on John Doe’s tree — a living person, not supposed to be shown to the public on MY tree. My Doe line was also on John Doe’s tree.
  • I emailed the man who manages John Doe’s account — let’s call him Younger Doe — and asked him to please remove my name from John Doe’s tree since I am, last time I checked, alive. I didn’t ask him to remove my entire Doe line. I did point out one misspelled name in the line.
  • He replied, saying, in essence, “huh?” He hadn’t checked John Doe’s account lately. He had NOT added my Doe line to John Doe’s tree.
  • I emailed the co-administrator of the project. I told her Younger Doe and I hadn’t a clue what was going on, and could she please fill us in as to how my Doe line might have found its way into John Doe’s family tree at FTDNA?
  • She (in my opinion) ducked and ran for cover. She said perhaps the Doe project administrator might have added my line to John Doe’s tree. She copied the administrator on her email to me and Younger Doe.

I replied and said I was outraged that a DNA project administrator would alter a project member’s posted family tree.

The reply from the administrator said my line “has been removed” from John Doe’s tree. Don’t you just love passive voice? It’s as though some ghostly apparition removed my info, rather than an identifiable person. Although I have some suspicions about who both added and deleted that stuff. She also suggested that, if I didn’t like what happened, I should change my privacy settings. She was using the sarcastic AND disingenuous font, since changing my privacy settings wouldn’t have prevented what happened.

I began checking this matter — and the issues of control and privacy that it raises — with genealogy friends. I also got help from a friend who is a member of the Rankin project. She let me fool around with her account to find out what I could do, and what I could not do, as an administrator. Her account has strict privacy settings, so I didn’t learn much from that exercise.

Here’s what I did learn from conversations and online experimentation.

  • There is no way to prevent a project administrator from looking at your posted FTDNA tree, no matter what your privacy settings may be. The most restrictive setting to prevent administrator meddling is “read only.” (See advice on settings below). Thus, there is no way my settings would have prevented the Doe project administrator from getting information about my Doe ancestors. Obviously, if there is a problem with privacy settings in this particular saga, it is on John Doe’s account, not mine.
  • What she did with the ancestry information she obtained from my account was completely out of my control. Administrators are, of course, subject to FTDNA guidelines for administrators and the FTDNA privacy policy.
  • None of my friends were comfortable with what happened here. No one was sure whether FTDNA’s guidelines for project administrators might have precluded the revision of John Doe’s tree. No one was sure whether the privacy policy precluded it, either. I’m also not sure about either of those things.

Finally, here’s some concrete advice: if you belong to a DNA project, you need to make sure you are comfortable with the amount of control your privacy settings give to project administrators. Here’s how to check. In your FTDNA account, look on the left side of your home page at the bottom of your “profile” information, and go to….

Manage Personal Information → Contact Information → Privacy and Sharing → Account Access. 

“Contact Information,” “Privacy and Sharing,” and “Account Access” are all tabs — easy to find at the top of each subsequent page after your home page. When you get to “Account Access,” you will see the question “how much access do administrators have?” If you have maximum protection, it should be set to “READ ONLY.” If you click on the “READ ONLY” link, you can view the “complete permission list” and give an administrator limited access if you wish.

While you are in your FTDNA account, CHANGE YOUR PASSWORD. It is possible that the administrator in this case unaccountably felt that it was acceptable to modify John Doe’s tree (without telling Younger Doe) because she had the account password. I am told administrators are sometimes given passwords by the test kit owner if he or she needs help. That’s all well and good. Get whatever help you need from a project administrator, then CHANGE YOUR PASSWORD.

That’s something akin to the First Commandment of the digital age, isn’t it?

I cannot identify anything in the “complete permission” list that might limit an administrator’s authority to revise a member’s family tree. Likewise, I can’t identify anything specific in the guidelines for administrators that either prohibits it OR allows it. I plan to contact FTDNA and suggest they might want to look at this issue.

That said, it’s hard to imagine that anyone involved in DNA testing for family history purposes would find it acceptable to modify someone else’s family tree without getting express permission to do so. Written guidelines and policies shouldn’t be necessary here. Common sense and thoughtfulness should work just fine. 

Another option is to withdraw from a project altogether, which is what I did with the Doe family surname project.

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