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Privacy questions after Blackstone acquires Ancestry

10 August 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1059

What will happen to users' health data? Privacy advocates are concerned after Ancestry is bought by private equity group Blackstone.

Ancestry, the genealogy website known for tracing family history and DNA testing, reached a deal valued at $4.7 billion with Blackstone. The American firm will receive a 75 percent stake in the company, sources told Bloomberg.

'We believe Ancestry has significant runway for further growth as people of all ages and backgrounds become increasingly interested in learning more about their family histories and themselves,' said Blackstone senior managing director, David Kestnbaum. 'We look forward to investing behind further data, functionality, and product development across Ancestry's market-leading platform to continue to provide a differentiated service.'

Ancestry was launched in 1996 as a family history tracking tool and has now accumulated 100 million family trees and 20 billion historical records. In 2012 they started a direct-to-consumer genetic test to provide more detailed information about the ethnicity of ancestors. Recently they started to offer genetic testing to screen for inherited health risks, similar to competitors 23andMe. Ancestry state there are now 18 million people in their DNA network.

Ancestry's privacy statement states their commitment to protecting their customers: they use personal information to market new products, but do not share users' genetic information with insurers, employers or third-party marketers without consent. The Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA) further protects Americans from discrimination based on their genetic information with health insurance and employment, but there is no equivalent framework in the UK.

Blackstone is the third private equity group to invest in the company since London-based Permira bought Ancestry in 2012. Individuals have expressed concerns that investors will use the DNA data to make further profit. Similar fears arose when GlaxoSmithKline partnered with 23andMe in 2018.

In response, a spokesperson for Ancestry said to CBS News that its consumer privacy and data protections remain unchanged under its new ownership. A Blackstone spokesperson reinforced this by saying they will 'not have access to user DNA and family tree data'.

But experts think more consumer protections are needed: 'The results can be a complete modification of the scope and use of the personal information,' Alan Butler, interim executive director and general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, said to MedCity News, 'This is one example of a very troubling trend. It's something regulatory agencies are not up to date to deal with. It's one of the reasons we need comprehensive privacy law in the US.'

Blackstone agrees to buy Ancestry in $4.7 billion deal
STAT |  5 August 2020
Blackstone’s $4.7B acquisition of Ancestry raises privacy questions
MedCity News |  6 August 2020
Blackstone snaps up in $4.7bn deal
Financial Times |  5 August 2020
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