[Updated] Ancestry.com Employees Caught Throwing Away Thousands Of Records They Were Supposed To Be Archiving For The US Government

from the file-under:-wastebasket dept

[Update: Amy Rubenstein of Ancestry.com has pointed out a few inaccuracies within this post and I have corrected information as needed. Some claims made are still open for debate, so rather than strike statements that are less than wholly resolved, I have added Rubenstein’s statements directly after these sentences.]

Ancestry.com has long been a government contractor, converting millions of hard copy records into electronic files. In conjunction with the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA), it has performed monumental tasks like indexing and scanning all US Census records from 1790 through 1930. Or has it?

The private company operates with minimal oversight and its relationship with the NARA is a “closely-guarded secret.” [Rubenstein says Ancestry.com’s archival work is overseen by “government employees and monitors.” This would suggest more oversight than Matthew M. Aid — intel historian and NSA expert — asserts there is in his introduction to the news article quoted here. Rubenstein made no statement concerning the “closely guarded” secrecy of Ancestry.com’s relationship with the NARA.] This lack of accountability has naturally resulted in, shall we say, lackluster efforts from its employees. (via Unredacted)

An employee of ancestry.com who was working at the federal records center in north St. Louis County was fired for allegedly throwing out draft-card information, a federal administrator said.

Bryan McGraw, director of the National Personnel Records Center, said Friday that his staff recovered all the papers, some of them from a trash can. The incident on March 12 prompted the federal agency to halt contract work by Ancestry Inc., which operates as ancestry.com, at St. Louis and four other sites.

The currently-on-hold project involved scanning in 49 million draft records. Apparently, an employee found it easier to satisfy his/her supervisor to hit quotas by dumping files in the nearest trashcan… or glove? [Rubenstein says ancestry.com does not “hand out quotas.” It monitors employee efficiency by “tracking average scanning output,” but does not issue quotas directly to its employees.]

McGraw said the employee apparently had been warned about productivity by his supervisor and tried to dispose of a pending stack of supplemental papers that had been attached to individual draft cards. McGraw said another person found some of the records on the employee’s desk and others stuffed into a latex glove in a trash can.

This isn’t the first time ancestry.com’s been caught destroying files it’s supposed to be archiving. [Ancestry.com’s Rubenstein points out that the company did not take over the archival efforts at this location until August 26, 2014. The incidents discussed here occurred in 2012, with the investigation finally wrapping up in 2014. I have amended the article title to reflect the fact that ancestry.com employees did NOT dispose of “thousands of records.” According to Rubenstein, the number of records trashed in this recent incident was “slightly over 100. My apologies to ancestry.com for stating both incidents happened under ancestry.com’s purview.] Last year, employees at the same location were caught disposing of thousands of records.

National Personnel Records Center workers here dumped, stashed or otherwise destroyed 4,000 records of individual federal employees, the head of the National Archives revealed in a memo this week.

That alone would be bad enough, but the documents the St. Louis Post-Dispatch acquired suggested that the problem had been ongoing for years.

A July 30, 2012, letter from the Office of Inspector General said that as the old records center facility in Overland was being decommissioned in 2011, employees found documents hidden in pillars and stuffed in the space between the floors and the lowest shelves.

This finding — along with the recovery of supposedly-archived documents in the woods [!] outside of Alton, Missouri, led to the NARA contacting 132 veterans to inform them that their personal information may have been exposed. It did not, however, lead to the pulling of contracts from ancestry.com. [See above note about ancestry.com’s takeover date.] Sentences were handed down to two employees — one of whom threw away or destroyed 850 of the 1,200 records he’d been assigned. Others were allowed to resign rather than face punishment for their actions. The exposure of ancestry.com’s carelessness resulted in little more than the NARA’s Inspector General suggesting someone should do something about maintaining the integrity of the records entrusted to the commercial service.

This isn’t the full extent of ancestry.com’s abuse in relation to its federal archival efforts. Despite not being the true “owner” of the documents and the information contained therein, the company has done everything from issuing bogus DMCA takedown notices on by-default public domain records to locking up US government-produced records behind paywalls. As to the latter, it claims it was done for “security reasons,” in order to prevent Social Security numbers of the recently-deceased from being exploited by identity thieves. What ancestry.com’s spokesperson failed to mention in public statements is that Congressional pressure forced the redaction of Social Security numbers. Moving the records behind a paywall was just a fortuitous byproduct of its earlier careless exposure of SSNs — a decision made for purported “security” reasons but one that allowed it to monetize publicly-funded, public domain records.

The issue here is the lack of oversight. Private companies often provide essential services to the government, often at a fraction of the cost of the government performing the work itself. But these government agencies need to be closely watching their hired help and to react more quickly, and with more severity, when the relationship is abused — on either end. Ancestry.com’s work is essential to the establishment of a permanent home for indexed government records. Unfortunately, the oversight needed to prevent the sort of behavior exhibited here isn’t in place and that’s going to create holes in the public record and prevent ancestry.com from being considered a trustworthy repository of public information. [As noted in updated sections above, ancestry.com is monitored by government employees. Obviously, the oversight has a few flaws, but there is some form of oversight in place.]

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Comments on “[Updated] Ancestry.com Employees Caught Throwing Away Thousands Of Records They Were Supposed To Be Archiving For The US Government”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

An issue, but not the main one

The issue here is the lack of oversight.

No, actually, I’d say the issue is that they have no reason to actually do their job properly, even with oversight. Destroying or ‘misplacing’ records for years, and what happened, or, more to the point, what didn’t?

It did not, however, lead to the pulling of contracts from ancestry.com. Sentences were handed down to two employees — one of whom threw away or destroyed 850 of the 1,200 records he’d been assigned. Others were allowed to resign rather than face punishment for their actions. The exposure of ancestry.com’s carelessness resulted in little more than the NARA’s Inspector General suggesting someone should do something about maintaining the integrity of the records entrusted to the commercial service.

A ‘suggestion’ that they should do better, with one person fired, and several others allowed to resign rather than face any real punishment.

If they have no punishment for screwing up, then they will screw up. Want to fix the problem, put some real penalties in place for those that aren’t doing their jobs properly, but until that is done, I’m sure records will keep being destroyed and/or lost.

Anonymous Coward says:

So, city librarians and libraries (people and places with actual archiving skills) are being shut down because we don’t have money to pay them. But Ancestry Inc., which has no regard for its own commercial profitability deriving from fully available records gets to be paid for repeatedly violating the public trust.

Oh, yes. The private enterprises sure can do it better.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I’m of the opinion that our government has contracted out far too much of its core responsibilities, which is worsening the ‘revolving door’ effect between government, lobbyists and contractors. Gov incompetence / bureaucracy will always be a serious concern – but in its current state the bureaucracy of the government (including the contract managers) + contractors makes things worse.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I agree with you John.

This part made me laugh:
“Private companies often provide essential services to the government, often at a fraction of the cost of the government performing the work itself.”

Working in the DoD I can assure you contractors do the work more expensively and take longer than the government (if you count actual time spent doing the development and not looking at the overhead bureaucracy involved). The contractors can just adapt faster when a change happens so it seems like they get the job done better.

However private companies only care about their bottom line. Don’t ever be fooled by a defense contractor claiming they do the work because they care about America or are patriots. They do the work because they know they can abuse the system and make lots of money, especially if they can get the contract to a big project.

For example Lockheed Martin has built factories and facilities in almost all 50 states (maybe all 50 by now). Guess which Senator or congress member will be willing to shut down an over budget or inferiorly designed project developed by Lockheed. None of them, because if they do the people in their state will complain and they risk not being re-elected.

On every project that I have ever worked, contractors charge more for the work than it would ever cost to pay a government employee to do it. The only benefit of using a contractor is the ability to temporarily hire people to do a job because they have expertise in a particular area and/or are not held responsible to as many laws or bureaucracy as government employees are.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: Re:

This is the problem: the naive belief that private enterprise is pure of heart and kept honest by market forces. Uh, no it’s not.

The purpose of private enterprise is to make a profit and, when they’re holding their employees to targets they find hard to meet, shortcuts will be taken. Market forces can only be brought to bear where competition exists, and there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of that for this particular industry, unless I’m wrong.

The government needs to provide a safe and permanent record storage service for archived information and if companies like Ancestry.com want access to it, great. But they don’t get to take it out of the building and they’re only making backup copies, not replacing an essential service. As Mike said in another article, don’t rely on one platform. He’s right.

Christian (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The problem is Congressional appropriations. NARA does not run on donations. It gets its money from Congress when it presents its budget every year. (You can watch the Archivist of the United States [AOTUS] and his colleagues from the Smithsonian and National Parks Services on C-Span when they go up in front of Congress to discuss their fiscal needs.) NARA is one of the Executive Branch agencies that is at the bottom of the scrap pile because the public doesn’t either understand its mission or care about it. So, it’s very difficult for AOTUS to go to the public and say, “this is what your tax money goes towards…” It’s all about the lowest bidder. Librarians are not Archivists. We (Archivists) are in charge of the protection of the historical record, We are being kept from doing the work we should all because the funding is so low.

Anonymous Coward says:

NARA itself is horribly dysfunctional

I know from direct experience: this is a government agency staffed in large part by nitwits who have zero technical clue, zero privacy clue, zero security clue, zero project management clue. It’s a wonder they don’t all have puncture wounds in their foreheads from trying to eat with forks.

No wonder these morons are willing to do business with the lying, incompetent, abusive assholes at ancestry.com.

Christian (profile) says:

Re: NARA itself is horribly dysfunctional

What a horrible thing to day about NARA employees. As a retired NARA Archivist specializing in WWII holdings, I can say that either you are a disgruntled former employee or just have absolutely no clue about them. There are thousands of well-educated (in technology as well as archival practive) who are more than dedicated to the task. The problem is leadership. NARA has had horrible leadership at the top level for many year – including the current chair sitter.

Chris ODonnell (profile) says:

That sucks. Ancestry.com is an amazing service from the consumer POV. You put your parents and grandparents names in, and 4 hours later you are still at your computer, and you’ve traced your family back to 1500s France; when 4 hours previously you didn’t even know you were French.

*That really happened, just this past weekend.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Sounds like an incentive problem

The real problem seems to be Ancestry.com’s managment technique.

Why are employees incented to throw away records? I’m guessing they’re measured on how many “record sets” they process (which might be small or large) instead of how many sheets of paper, how many bytes of information they enter, etc.

So they try to get rid of the bigger records.

The problem is perverse incentives. Change that, and the problem will go away.

(Of course, these incentives might come from NARA – if so, they’re the ones who need to change them.)

Anonymous Coward says:

The destruction of records is contrary to the entire idea of Ancestry.com’s existence.

Humans have a need to preserve knowledge, most of the time regardless of costs. They exist because of this need and people’s curiosity.

Yet here they are… allowing records to be destroyed through apparently poor management… It seems the government rubbed off on them.

Virginia Mitchell (user link) says:


This is why work like this should be in the hands of genealogists and historians, not just anyone who can fill out a job application. There are people out there who are trained to handle documents and have been trained on how to use the equipment to digitize them. Archivists, librarians and public historians have this training and have a deep respect for what they do, as well as the desire to see history preserved, not destroyed. The problem is that people who have these qualifications cost more money than the low wages ancestry pays their employees.

Aardvark says:

Hmmm… Government does a better job??? 20 years ago, most of the information we sought out for genealogy was virtually non-existant. EVERY business employs lazy ass people that either don’t do their jobs, or just don’t care… Government employees are not excluded… it’s just human nature… If you’ve ever owned a business, maybe you have a right to comment here… If you’ve ever run a government, likewise. Otherwise, you probably have no idea of that which you speak…

Wendy says:

This is nothing new

When I worked for the IRS in Utah in the 80s, we were made aware of mass quantities of files that the Philadelphia Service Center had hidden in the ceilings rather than process them in order to appear to have met or exceeded expectations. Then, when I began working in Philadelphia, one of my co-workers was given a CASH production award for having the highest production rate in our unit. Only after he was sent on special assignment was it discovered that the work he’d signed off as completed was actually stuffed in his desk and portable files. I was criticized during one assignment that my production was too fast and told that I was not to report it on my timesheet because it would then force the others in the unit to match it. What was that production rate? ONE PER HOUR!!! And, you wonder why quotas are bad and why government is inefficient? So, no, this doesn’t surprise me one bit – and, yes, there ARE quotas to be met or you will not receive a good review or any promotions. By the way – the coworker was NOT punished because his supervisor was more interested in saving face after having put him in for the award than having him be held accountable.

Janet L Gardner says:

Quality Control

If they have dedicated Quality Control employees that are dedicated to the performance of work standards required by their government counterparts/overseers there won’t be any issues. They can work out the issues and increase performance and satisfaction through ISO techniques. I was a government contractor Quality Manager at a small assembly facility. I would absolutley love to work with Ancestry. Genealogy is my passion, Quality was my profession. Remember, no one is perfect, no association, or government is perfect. Be wary of who you desparage. Government oversight could actually be less, because lord knows they have a lot on their plate, that issues Ancestry faces, just need more experience and training and internal oversight. A Civilian employee is just a smart and good as a government employee, if they have the same goals. I could go on but I think you get my drift by now. Thank you.

Tony Proctor (user link) says:

Where's the motive?

If, as Amy has commented, the “average scanning output” was being tracked, and that there was no specific “quota”, then where would be the motive for misappropriating pages?

Surely, the only reason for dumping originals would be to meet some time-based deadline. The scanning rate (if that is what Amy meant) would be independent of the total count of pages to be scanned. If there is some ideal range of time required to scan an individual page, then the total number should take as long as necessary for that volume. Presumably, those people were being paid on the basis of hours worked.

The Chief says:

Missing the Point

I think many are really missing the point. Any destruction of these records is a violation of federal law. It is known as the “destruction of government property.” Since these records are one of a kind, their value is truly priceless. Someone needs to be prosecuted and go to federal prison. From US Title Code 18:

  1. Destruction Of Government Property — 18 U.S.C. § 1361

“The penalties for violations of this section are tied to the extent of the property damage. As amended on September 13, 1994, if the damage exceeds $100, the defendant is subject to a fine of up to $250,000, ten years imprisonment, or both. Jan 17, 2020

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