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Genetic Gold Rush: Ancestry DNA Databases Spell End Of Anonymity
A scientist holds up a sample during a DNA extraction demonstration to unveil groundbreaking technology in New York earlier this year. (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)

Genetic Gold Rush: Ancestry DNA Databases Spell End Of Anonymity

Israeli researchers discover that over 50% of Americans can be identified via genealogy websites; privacy experts warn of implications

The genetic-testing market is booming. Hoping to uncover family histories and ethnic origins, some 15 million people around the globe have already used a consumer DNA kit and submitted their genetic information to online databases like 23andMe, Ancestry.com or MyHeritage. And more are expected to follow this trend in the coming years.

As ancestry databases grow ever more popular, experts who specialize in digital privacy are beginning to sound the alarm, warning that sensitive genetic information could become de-anonymized and used by ill-intentioned actors. A new study carried out by Israeli researchers and published in the journal Science does all but confirm such fears.

The study—the work of researchers from Israel-based ancestry platform MyHeritage, Columbia University, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem— analyzed the data of some 1.28 million anonymous people in the United States and discovered that more than half of Americans can be identified and tracked through open genealogical databases. That number rises to roughly 60 percent in the case of Americans of European descent.

The expansive study examined anonymous DNA samples, which led to the identification of distant relatives with corresponding DNA. Researchers managed to uncover these relatives’ age, place of residence as well as other identifying factors. According to the findings, law enforcement officials can now track criminals using commercial genealogy websites.

“The initial concept that sparked this study was the capture of the Golden State Killer by Sacramento Police,” Dr. Yaniv Erlich, lead author of the study and the Chief Science Officer at MyHeritage, told The Media Line. “The problem with police [DNA] databases is that you cannot search for distant relatives with them. At best, you can hope to find a first-degree relative such as a brother or a parent.

“But the [killer] came from a family where nobody had any [criminal background] so police decided to take his DNA and uploaded it to a genealogical website,” Erlich continued. “They identified his first cousin and then basically started building a family tree to zoom in on him.”

Even though the Golden State Killer—who murdered at least 13 people and raped 50 women—never used one of these popular ancestry websites himself, his distant relatives did, which enabled law enforcement officials last April to track him down.

Erlich, who is also a professor at Columbia University, specified that although the public would not be able to run the statistics used in the study to identify individuals using genealogy databases, the rise of such websites marked the beginning of a “genetic revolution.”

“We don’t have specific concerns about privacy right now,” he elaborated. “Police currently use these databases to catch really bad people. But we want to be in a position where we are proactive and thinking ahead.

“The horses are still in the barn; it’s still early on so we have a real chance to create a change,” Erlich concluded.

The study also outlined strategies to address privacy concerns, recommending that genealogy websites digitally encrypt consumer data in order to avoid the misuse of genomic information.

But digital privacy experts caution that while encryption would be helpful, it would not completely stem leaks or prevent hackers from accessing sensitive data in the long run.

“We need to assume that any data that is out there will leak at some point,” Dr. Tehilla Schwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and an expert on technology, law and policy issues, told The Media Line. “We don’t need to collect all this data. Once it has been collected and it’s out there, it’s going to be very, very difficult to keep anonymized or encrypted.”

It is not only commercial DNA websites, but also governments that are beginning to tap into valuable health data. For instance, earlier this year the Israeli cabinet approved a nationwide program that will make its citizens’ medical records available to researchers and private companies. At the time, the Prime Minister’s Office stated that all information collected would be kept anonymous in order to protect people’s privacy.

“This process in Israel hasn’t been done through legislation but only by a government decision,” Altshuler noted. “The powers that pushed this ahead are huge: powers within the government and the private market together. I think that this is one of the most dangerous processes that Israel is going through today and there’s not enough public discussion about it.”

While promises of anonymization have been used to justify such endeavors, she argued that digital information does not usually remain anonymous for long. Compounding this issue is the danger of genetic data being used for unethical purposes.

“Biometric and genetic data are the oil of the data economy,” she related, warning that such information could potentially be combined with other data sets gathered from social media, which would lead to unforeseen consequences.

Regarding possible legislative solutions, Altshuler pointed to the European Union’s concept of “the right to be forgotten,” which gives individuals legal recourse to have information, videos or photographs about themselves deleted from certain online records.

“Genetic data could enhance our health” by providing data to medical scientists with valuable information for research purposes, she concluded.

“But what is the price we are going to pay in the long run? This is what scares me.”

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