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Tracking Us Through Our DNA

By Brittany Reed

As if social media and technology recording our personal information wasn’t enough, DNA testing kits are doing it too. Popular DNA test companies like 23andMe, AncestryDNA and MyHeritage hold millions of peoples’ genetic code in their databases and they may not be keeping that information as private as you think.

James Hazel, a research fellow at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says that it would be legal for DNA test kit companies to share consumer information, but only if it’s disclosed in the privacy policy and terms of service with the consumer. According to a 2017 study done by Vanderbilt University, out of 90 DNA testing companies, 39% had no online written policy about how they use the genetic data they are given. Hazel also points out that companies have the right to change their privacy policies whenever they want to.           

 “I feel like if you’re going to do one of the tests then you have to understand everything that goes behind it,” said Andrew Wilson, UT junior management major. “I would assume that when you purchase the test you’re automatically agreeing to the terms and conditions of that package.” 

According to Engadget, 23andMe, MyHeritage and Ancestry all have privacy policies online, but each company implies the possibility of sharing some type of information. 23andMe “may share aggregate information,” which is information that doesn’t have a name or contact information attached to it, to third parties. MyHeritage has survey research information that is shared, even though it doesn’t contain identification information. Ancestry may share “data and biological samples” with collaborators and collaborator partners, also without identification information. 

So even though your name and address aren’t attached to your DNA data, companies may be sharing it with third parties, in marketing or through publication. 

“DNA companies should not share genetic information because it is an invasion of privacy. Unless they ask point-blank for consent and the individuals agree, they should not use people’s information,” said Carmella Brazzale, sophomore criminology major. “It does not matter if they keep the name and address anonymous, it still is an invasion of privacy.” 

However, complex privacy statements aren’t the only thing to be worried about.         

 In 2017, MyHeritage suffered a privacy breach when over 92 million account details were found on a private server, according to a release made by the company. Thankfully since MyHeritage keeps DNA data on a different server, only email addresses and passwords were leaked, not genetic information. Now, imagine how easy it would be for a skilled hacker to uncover the DNA data from one of these databases. When you send in your DNA to a company, you are putting your most personal information, your genetic code, at risk.

“There are beneficial factors to having large DNA databases like these. These companies having this DNA available to the government has helped solve cold cases,” said Jess Barone, sophomore criminology and criminal justice major.            

According to a Washington Post article, investigators identified the “Golden State Killer,” a man who killed 12 people and raped 45 women between 1976 and 1986 because of DNA databases like these. By checking crime scene DNA against a popular genealogy site, police tracked Joseph James DeAngelo through his family tree decades after he committed the crimes.            

According to the MIT Technology Review, more than 26 million people had added their DNA to the four leading databases by the start of 2019. To complete a test, consumers send in a saliva sample or mouth swab where companies extract DNA from their cells, analyze it, and match it to other DNA samples in the database. Afterward, people are able to find long-lost family members, connect their family tree or find out genetic information about themselves based on their genetic report.             

In the end, it’s the consumer’s choice of whether or not they want to share their genetic code with a company. In my opinion, the risk is greater than the reward, but for some, finding that long-lost sibling or parent means more than giving away the most personal part of their being.

Brittany Reed can be reached at brittany.reed@spartans.ut.edu

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