The genealogy company Ancestry has been acquired by investment firm Blackstone for $4.7 billion, changing ownership of the company and its trove of user-submitted DNA from a set of investment firms to another private equity firm.
The announcement was made in a press release published earlier this week by Blackstone, which shared it had “reached a definitive agreement to acquire Ancestry from Silver Lake, GIC, Spectrum Equity, Permira, and other equity holders for a total enterprise value of $4.7 billion.”
Ancestry is known for its genealogy and home DNA testing services. According to its website, the company has 3 million paying subscribers, 27 billion records, and 100 million family trees. The website also says that over 18 million people have been DNA tested through the company.
“To be crystal clear, Blackstone will not have access to user data and we are deeply committed to ensuring strong consumer privacy protections at the company,” a spokesperson for Blackstone told Motherboard in an email. “We will not be sharing user DNA and family tree records with our portfolio companies.”
A spokesperson from Ancestry also said the company’s relationship with its users would remain the same.
“Ancestry’s terms and conditions and privacy statement that is in effect for our users remains the same and Ancestry’s commitments to protect our customers’ personal data has not changed,” the spokesperson said.
Privacy concerns regarding data collected through home DNA kits have grown in recent years, specifically, that they could be used in ways not originally anticipated. For example, serial killer Joseph James DeAngelo was caught as the result of one of his relatives submitting their DNA to an open-source genetic database, which was then used by law enforcement to match DNA left at one of the crime scenes.
“Since the Golden State killer case kind of exploded, we’ve seen there are risks to law enforcement authorities wanting to have access to that data,” said Jen King, Director of Consumer Privacy at the Center for Internet and Society.
King said consumers should ask themselves whether it is worth it to hand over their genetic code to a consumer testing company, especially since the data they are providing isn’t just about themselves, but also about the people they are genetically related to.
“Ultimately there’s no specific protections for that data. So you kind of just have to rely on the companies to say they’ll do what they’re going to do and honor their promises and not sell off your data to the highest bidder if they go bankrupt or what have you,” King said.
With regards to Blackstone’s acquisition of Ancestry, King doesn’t think it is necessarily a question of privacy, since ownership is essentially going from one set of investment firms to Blackstone. In her mind, the question is what Blackstone would find appealing in a company like Ancestry, since by many accounts the market for consumer genetic companies has seen a slow down in growth over the last year.
“Companies really seek profit at a high level. So it’s kind of in my mind curious that you’d be diving into an industry that suddenly is experiencing some slower growth,” King said.
Ultimately, the multi-billion dollar trading of Ancestry between investment companies is another reminder that when you hand over your DNA, you never know who might eventually own it.