DNA Q&A: How to Delete DNA Data

DNA Q&A: How to Delete DNA Data

Millions of consumers have bought DNA tests and opted in to genetic matching services—raising privacy concerns for some genealogists. DNA expert Diahan Southard shares how to delete your DNA data if you've tested your DNA but want out.

To delete DNA data, you'll need to request that both your physical sample and your digital results get removed.

Q: Can I ever remove my DNA from a database?

A: The answer to your question is a strong, definitive “Sort of.”

First, note that all DNA testing companies also keep the physical DNA they extracted from your saliva sample or cheek swab. There it will stay, tucked into a corner freezer, unless you specifically ask them to destroy it. So, when you ask if your DNA can be removed from that database, the answer is “Yes.” You can definitively have your physical DNA removed from the storage freezer of your testing company and destroyed.

Requesting your DNA sample be destroyed varies depending on where you tested. You can request to have it deleted via your account settings at 23andMe. But you actually have to call customer service at AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage and LivingDNA.

But that only covers the DNA sample itself. When a company analyzes your physical sample, it also creates a digital file for your DNA. All companies allow you to delete this digital file from their databases as well. You can do so from your account settings at 23andMe and AncestryDNA, and by calling customer service at Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage and Living DNA.

Note that, once a company destroys your physical DNA sample and your digital DNA results, you can’t go back. There is no retrieving them. So you will want to carefully weigh your options when considering removing your results.

Alternatives to Deleting Your DNA

Instead of actually deleting your data, you can simply remove your DNA digital file from the company’s matching service. This means that you’ll no longer see DNA matches, and no one else in the database can see you. (You could still access your ethnicity results.) You can access this option from your account settings page within each testing company.

At Family Tree DNA, you have an additional option to remove your digital DNA file from the view of law enforcement agencies that use the database to identify potential leads. In March 2019, Family Tree DNA officially opted in all US test takers into this effort to help law enforcement. (Those in Europe were automatically opted out to conform with  GDPR privacy standards.) If you want your DNA data excluded from that effort, go into your Family Tree DNA account and opt out.

Limitations to Deleting Your DNA

While you can remove your digital DNA file from all future matching, a record of your presence in the database might still exist. Your DNA matches may have taken a screenshot of their match with you, or written down your name and information before you removed your record. So in that sense, you can never be truly “deleted.”

In addition, DNA companies also allow you to participate in genetic research using your data. If you did so but then decide to opt out of that research, your data (anonymized and used in aggregate with other users’ data) will remain part of in-process projects. Your information wouldn’t be included in any new projects, but it will still be used for current projects.

So, in short, you have options in determining how testing companies use (or don’t use) your DNA results. You can access most privacy features under your account settings, but you’ll need to call customer service to access some of them.

For more on protecting your privacy while DNA testing, check out Family Tree Magazine‘s Q&A with The Legal Genealogist, Judy Russell.