With the growing popularity of websites such as 23andme.com and Ancestry.com, there are several things that we must understand about DNA security. While it is quite entertaining and sometimes illuminating to merely send your saliva to a company to gain knowledge of your ancestry, there are some severe safety concerns for this action, now and into the future.
As someone who takes his own personal privacy quite seriously, willingly sending my DNA to a company, which can then use the data and sell it, is not something that interests me. However, there are now enough people that are contributing their DNA that allows you, the person who didn’t volunteer your spit, to probably be identified anyways. Per Columbia University scientist Yaniv Erlich, more than half of the American population (with European descent) are now identifiable through a close relative/third cousin on consumer registries such as 23andme and AncestryDNA.
This number is already quite alarming, and yet this number will rise as more people use these websites and their services. Erlich further states that these sites, “could implicate nearly any US-individual of European-descent in the near future” (Erlich, 2018). So, what can possibly be done using this information you ask? Well, in April of this year, a DNA database helped solve the 40-year search for the Golden State Killer. While, in this case at least, the DNA was a helpful tool in stopping a horrific man, it gives speculation of what else could be done with this information regarding you, the innocent citizen.
Just like with a company such as Facebook, having extensive personal data can set the stage for other companies to purchase it, or allow for data breaches by unauthorized personnel. According to these websites, their highest priority is protecting customer privacy. You can opt in or out of match viewability, and the data is not provided to law enforcement unless validated through proper legal verifications. Those guarantees may put many minds at ease, but personally, it only fans the flame.
When thinking of future applications of a large collection of DNA information of citizens, several things come to mind. Adding our DNA data to the list of things that make us humans, such as our voices (which can be easily replicated by computers), our personalities (which can be copied by AI), our appearances (which cameras can capture and track our movements), our fingerprints (often already in the system), and our conversations (Amazon Alexa, etc.), there really isn’t much information that they will not be able to possess.
This extensive amount of information can be used for insurance companies when adjusting premiums, can give employers notice of potential health risks, and can also enable police to search for the DNA markers of potentially violent individuals (the film Minority Report comes to mind). In the future, I imagine someone being arrested for something that their third cousin did, all thanks to DNA. Say what you will about these companies and their benefits, I for one, find the whole situation concerning.
Erlich, Yaniv. Identity Inference of Genomic Data Using Long-Range Familial Searches. 11 Oct 2018. Retrieved from http://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2018/10/10/science.aau4832.