World's Biggest Landlord Buys World's Biggest Genealogy Website

Stephen A. Schwarzman (center), CEO of the Blackstone Group which is purchasing a majority stake in Ancestry.com, sits with President Donald Trump (left) and Chris Liddell (right) at the White House on April 11, 2017.
Stephen A. Schwarzman (center), CEO of the Blackstone Group which is purchasing a majority stake in Ancestry.com, sits with President Donald Trump (left) and Chris Liddell (right) at the White House on April 11, 2017.
Photo: Brendan Smialowski (Getty Images)

The Blackstone Group will buy a majority stake in the genealogy website Ancestry.com in a deal worth $4.7 billion, according to a press release published Wednesday. Blackstone Group, a private equity firm, is the world’s largest landlord and Ancestry is the world’s largest genealogy website, with over 6 billion records on family history in the U.S. alone. Ancestry also provides DNA testing and has over 18 million DNA test results in its databases.

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Ancestry officially operates in over 34 countries around the world, though it’s accessible from pretty much anywhere on the planet. The genealogy website was founded in Utah in 1996 and has over three million paying subscribers with revenue of roughly $1 billion a year. The company has expanded into DNA testing in recent years and has partnered with drug companies to share data, raising plenty of eyebrows among privacy activists. The Pentagon has even warned U.S. military personnel against using DNA test kits available from companies like Ancestry and 23andMe.

Blackstone is buying a 75% stake in Ancestry, according to the Financial Times, and owns hundreds of thousands of properties around the world. Blackstone owns both commercial and residential real estate in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and South America, including high-profile hotels like the Bellagio in Las Vegas and the biggest apartment complex in Manhattan. The properties are often owned under countless subsidiary names.

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The United Nations issued a report in 2019 (written by independent researchers who didn’t receive payment from the UN and are not employed by the Human Rights Council) accusing Blackstone of “wreaking havoc” with “aggressive evictions” and contributing to the housing crisis that was becoming apparent even before the coronavirus pandemic sent the global economy spiraling. Blackstone made a killing from the 2009 financial crisis, scooping up billions of dollars worth of apartment complexes and single-family homes in the early 2010s.

The CEO and co-founder of Blackstone, billionaire Stephen A. Schwarzman, contributes significant sums of money to the Republican Party and has close ties to the Trump regime, serving on President Trump’s business advisory council in 2017. Schwarzman previously called proposed tax hikes on businesses during the Barack Obama administration, “like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939,” something that he later apologized for.

The Ancestry deal raises plenty of ethical questions to anyone who’s been paying attention and people are already telegraphing their concerns on social media about the deal. There’s no evidence that Blackstone has purchased Ancestry in an effort to discriminate against tenants based on race or national origin, but it’s not unreasonable to ask if buying a genealogy website will make unethical and illegal behavior easier in an environment where we know that housing discrimination is still rampant—not just in the U.S. but around the world.

U.S. federal housing laws prohibit landlords from discriminating against potential tenants based on race, religion, and national origin, among other categories. But Big Tech companies like Facebook have made it much easier for landlords to do precisely that behind the scenes. Back in 2016, an investigation by ProPublica found that Facebook allowed property owners to target ads based on race, a clear violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Facebook called it a technical glitch, but didn’t abolish the practice until 2019 following a slew of lawsuits from civil rights organizations.

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For whatever it’s worth, Blackstone says it’s just interested in digital consumer businesses and wants to invest more money into data development for the company.

“We are very excited to partner with Ancestry and its management team. 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,” David Kestnbaum, a Senior Managing Director at Blackstone, said in a statement published online.

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“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. Our investment is a prime example of Blackstone’s continued, high-conviction focus on investing in growing, digital consumer businesses, which are resilient in the current environment and beyond.”

Will individual property managers who operate under Blackstone have access to Ancestry’s DNA and genealogy records? Technically, any landlord can already use many of the company’s records today, just as they use commercial background checks and consumer-facing products like Google’s search engine. But it’s perfectly rational to ask seemingly paranoid questions during an increasingly paranoid time.

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The U.S. does, after all, currently have a president who was pursued by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1973 for housing discrimination at his rental properties in New York, long before the internet and DNA testing were available to the masses. President Trump and his father used to write a big “C” on the rental applications of Black people. What did the “C” stand for? Colored.

Update, 12:30 p.m. ET: Matt Anderson, Managing Director of Global Public Affairs at Blackstone, sent Gizmodo a statement denying that anything nefarious could happen with its acquisition of a company that collects DNA from millions of customers around the world.

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“The premise of this article is false. We are deeply committed to following all fair housing laws and do not tolerate discrimination of any kind,” Anderson said. “Furthermore, Blackstone itself will not have access to this data and we will never—repeat never—share it between these two businesses.”

Whatever you say, guys.

Anderson also took issue with the 2019 report issued to the United Nations about Blackstone’s “aggressive evictions” of tenants. Anderson noted that the authors of that report, human rights experts Leilani Farha and Surya Deva, are “an independent rapporteur, who speaks/serves in their ‘personal/individual capacity’ and not on behalf of the UN.”

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Farha and Deva’s report noted “egregious” conduct by private equity companies buying up real estate in 2010s, including Blackstone. In some cases, rents rose up to 50% after buildings were purchased by private equity firms, according to the researchers in a press release published at the UN’s Human Rights website.

We’ve added a parenthetical in our story above to note the authors of that report are not employed by the United Nations. Obviously you don’t need a paycheck from the UN to recognize predatory bullshit from private equity companies.

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Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog

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DISCUSSION

So Blackstone now has my DNA data. Nothing to see here, no cause for concern.

Before I got 500 replies saying the same thing - yes, I know this is a risk of submitting DNA data. And I’m pretty sure Gizmodo covered it several times :D