Do you want to purchase a DNA test from 23andMe, but you’d prefer to do so anonymously?
This article looks at your anonymity and privacy options with 23andMe. We’ve got a walkthrough of limiting what you show to DNA relatives.
We also review whether being completely anonymous is possible, and how close you can get to this status.
What Your DNA Relatives See On 23andMe
When 23andMe processes DNA tests, customers who opt-in to viewing DNA relatives will also have some profile information shown to their genetic matches.
There’s a cap of viewing 1,500 relatives unless you pay a premium. You can check out our article on 23andMe package costs.
Here is the display of one of my top relatives. I’ve deliberately picked a very common name. But many have distinctive first names and/or surnames.
Brian has chosen to display his first name and surname. But he didn’t have to.
Here’s another of my 23andMe relatives. Maureen has chosen to display her first name, and only have an initial for her last name.
And these two relatives below take full steps to privatize their names. As you can see, they choose to use initials for their display names.
But I don’t even want to reveal my initials!
Depending on your circumstances, you may be thinking that even initials are revealing.
You can use a pseudonym (a fictitious name) as your display name. Brian Smith may be Engelbert Humperdinck for all I know.
This article will take you through the steps of setting this up.
Display name, family history information, and account details
Now that you know that you don’t have to reveal your name to your DNA relatives, your privacy concerns may be put to rest.
However, you may also want to know about hiding your birth year and other information that you provide 23andMe. Read through the later section in this article on how to be anonymous to your relatives.
Of course, there’s a difference between your display details and your account details.
23andMe has my credit card details and my home address where they sent the DNA kit.
Some people don’t want the company to have easy access to this information.
Why Do You Want To Do 23andMe Anonymously?
You probably haven’t committed a serious crime and are worried about your 23andMe test tying you to the scene.
But hypothetically…if that’s actually the case, then jump down to the section on why you can’t be completely anonymous in this era of DNA testing – even if you don’t do the test yourself.
Three other scenarios are more likely to be the motivation:
- You are researching birth family
- You know your genetic family but are concerned about surprises
- Concerns that a company will use your genetic profile against you
I’ll run through each one separately.
Reason 1: Researching Birth Family
In this scenario, you may be an adopted adult or have unknown parentage for another reason. Or you may suspect that you have close unidentified family somewhere.
It’s perfectly reasonable to want to keep some control on what can be a rollercoaster.
Let’s say that your 23andMe results show you several first cousins or even a half-sibling.
If you see their display names in your 23andMe list, then they also see your display name.
If you take the right steps when you set up your account (we’ll cover this later), you can protect your privacy even if you have close family on 23andMe.
They will know that you exist. But you can cloak your name and other identifying details.
This means that you can take your time to process your thoughts without having people look you up on social media and other avenues.
When you’re ready, you may choose to edit your account with your full name and some family history.
Reason 2: Family Secrets And Surprises
In this scenario, you are not adopted and you know your immediate genetic family. You’d like to do a 23andMe test to learn more about your ethnic heritage and perhaps build up a family tree.
However, you’re a little worried that an unknown half-sibling or first cousin may pop up out of the blue.
This article will show you how to set up your display details with initials or a pseudonym.
However, I would ask you to be considerate to relatives who are looking for their genetic identity.
Many people who have tested with 23andMe have got immense fulfillment from helping someone gain knowledge of their genetic family.
Reason 3: Your Genetic Profile Being Used Against You
I think a major concern here is that health insurance companies will get their hands on your genetic profile. When you apply for health cover, they’ll say…
Brian Smith of 123 Ashby Road? Let’s look at his DNA results. Hmmm. Add on a massive premium for this guy’s weird 5th chromosome.Mythical insurance rep
First of all, this is strictly illegal in the United States and many other countries.
I’ve covered this topic in detail in our article on how 23andMe sells or shares your DNA.
I’ll summarize here by saying that
- They do not sell to insurance companies.
- You can opt-out of their shared research with third parties
- If you opt-in to research projects, your personal information is hidden
Let’s say you’ve read all that, but you’re worried that 23andMe will be purchased in the future by some giant conglomerate that you don’t trust.
It’s possible to purchase a 23andMe DNA test without providing your real name and address. Check out this section.
Why Your DNA Won’t Be Anonymous From Law Enforcement
Were you born in the United States or another western country? Then, you cannot know that you’ll be completely anonymous when it comes to DNA testing with 23andMe or any other company.
You don’t even have to take the test! Let me explain how this could work.
When someone in your family takes a 23andMe test
If your first cousin tests with 23andMe and neither of you are adopted, a criminal investigation may have little difficulty discovering that you exist.
Two generations of birth and marriage records will lead to the names of your shared grandparents. Then, law enforcement agents simply work back down the records to identify their children’s children.
One of those is you. If an investigation is focused on a time and a location, then police work will either place you there or eliminate you from their inquiries.
This is how the Golden State Killer was caught. He didn’t do a DNA test, but a close relative did.
Now we’ve got this out of the way, let’s look at protecting your privacy.
How To Protect Your Privacy With DNA Relatives On 23andMe
The ultimate way to protect your privacy is to opt out of the DNA matching service. You won’t see any DNA relatives on 23andMe and they won’t see you.
However, I’ll assume here that you want to research your family history while preserving your privacy. Read on.
The first thing I need to explain is what “connections” are on 23andMe.
Connections and sharing
23andMe have two levels for how your DNA relatives see your details. There is a basic level, and then you can choose DNA relatives to see extra details.
23andMe calls these chosen relatives your connections.
For example, you could display initials to most of your DNA relatives and your full name to a select few.
You won’t have any shared connections when you first get your DNA results. It’s up to you to choose with whom you share a connection.
Having explained that, let’s get back to the display settings.
Settings page and preferences page
There are two places to set your display details on 23andMe.
This is quite confusing, and I hope they change the interface. They may have done by the time you read this, so drop me a comment if you see something different!
You can open the Settings page from the drop-down menu under your account name in the far right corner of the top menu bar.
You will see a read-only version of your settings. To change these settings, click the edit link.
The Preferences page also has display settings you can change. You can get to the Preferences page through a link on the Settings page. (Yes, this is kinda dumb).
Now we’ve figured that out, let’s work our way through how to control what your DNA relatives see about you.
Settings Page: profile picture
The first item on the Settings page is your profile picture. The simple choice here is not to upload one!
Settings Page: name displayed to your connections
The next item on the Settings page is the name displayed to your connections.
Most of my 23andMe relatives put their real first and last name into this section.
You can put initials in the boxes, or you can use a pseudonym (a false name). 23andMe does not verify these details.
Settings Page: name displayed to your other relatives
Having chosen the name for your connections, 23andMe offers you several choices for what to show to the rest of your relatives.
These choices are based on what you entered and saved in the box above. They will offer you:
- Same name as for connections
- Initial for first name and full last name
- Full first name and an initial for the last name
- Initials for first and last name
If you don’t like any of these choices, you need to go back and change the name that you entered for your connections.
Settings Page: birth year
You can choose whether your DNA relatives see your birth year.
This is actually very useful for people researching their family history. You share similar amounts of DNA with a great-grandparent and half nephew. Age can give a clue to the relationship.
But you can choose not to share your birth you’re here.
Preferences Page: home location
23andMe has a nice map feature that shows where your DNA relatives have specified in this section.
You don’t have to provide any details here.
I choose to provide a country to help DNA relatives.
I certainly wouldn’t tap in my zip code here!
Preferences Page: ancestor locations
23andMe lets you enter the locations of your four grandparents.
You don’t need to enter any details here.
As I want to help DNA relatives build their family trees, I put in details down to the town or county level here. I also add additional details for prior generations.
Preferences Page: ancestral surnames
I’ve added the family names of my grandparents, great-grandparents, 2nd greats, and 3rd greats where I know them. Basically, I’ve gone back as far as I can go – to help others with family history.
You don’t have to enter anything here.
If you really don’t want to be identified, don’t enter name and location details for your grandparents. All it takes is for someone to find an obituary to get a good idea of your identity.
Preferences Page: link to family tree
23andMe lets you put a link to an online family tree on other websites.
I guess I don’t even need to say – don’t use this if you are locking down your privacy.
Preferences Page: introduce yourself
As well as a blurb about my family history, I include this sentence in my introduction:
“I’m willing to help any adoptees.”
That’s just to encourage anyone who is nervous about reaching out.
If you are locking down your privacy, leave this area blank.
How To Use 23andMe Anonymously (Nearly)
You understand that you can’t be completely anonymous, whether you test with 23andMe or not.
Having said that, let’s take a look at some precautions you can take to block 23andMe from easily tracing your identity.
I mentioned that 23andMe has my credit card details and home address for delivery. You can certainly get around providing these details.
Alternative payment methods
The least traceable alternative is to just use cash. Here are some ways to do so.
Visit one of the major genealogy conferences. You can usually buy a 23andMe test at a dedicated booth. They’ll take cash.
Can’t visit a conference? I’ve got your back.
Use cash to purchase a gift card in a store. Use the gift card to load money onto a pre-paid debit card. Be sure you go with legitimate services here!
23andMe used to use Amazon as a provider, but not at the time of writing. If this comes back, you can buy an Amazon gift card and keep payment away from 23andMe altogether.
Use a friend’s address. When the Minority Report team swoop in, you’ll be watching the show from across the street.
Just joking! There are plenty of parcel services that you can hire to receive your DNA kit from 23andMe.
More About 23andMe?
If you want more background info, check out our ultimate guide to 23andMe. This will give you the links to our many articles about the ethnicity reports and using the site for genealogy research.