Online DNA testing firms are making everyone – not just their customers – identifiable online
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Online DNA testing firms are making everyone – not just their customers – identifiable online

You may have heard on 23andMe, or Ancestry.com – you may even be one of their many, many, customers. But, if not, here’s what you need to know: these companies, and others like them, are online platforms that offer a DNA-sequencing-by-post service.

They send you a kit, you spit in a bottle, and send it back. They can then harvest that spit for skin cells from your cheek lining, and analyse your DNA. Once it’s done, your results are posted to your profile on their platform, and you can find out all manner of things, such as your ethnic composition, or (on 23andMe) certain medical information, such as whether you carry genes that predispose you to specific illnesses.

Silicon Valley giant Alphabet, a major stakeholder in consumer DNA testing company 23andMe, has seen its share price appreciate by 6% so far this year

graph 1610 online dna

SOURCE: Yahoo Finance

Now, researchers have discovered something that may raise privacy alarms: because we all share DNA with our family members, it’s possible to discover someone’s identity from their DNA even if they haven’t ever had it analysed themselves. At present, it’s already possible to identify 60% of the American population (who are of European descent) from their DNA, even if they’ve never given a DNA sample.

The reason for this is that the 15 million people who have used consumer DNA tests are people’s parents, siblings, first- second- third- or fourth-cousins, uncles and aunts, etc. And if researchers have enough of these people’s data, they can build an accurate picture of family members that haven’t taken a test. According to the study author, Columbia University professor Yaniv Erlich, who is also the chief science officer at consumer DNA testing firm MyHeritage, only 2% of the population needs to have undergone a DNA test for everyone in the world to be identifiable.

That’s not a far-fetched possibility. In a recent interview, he said: “we are getting very soon to the point that everyone will be potentially identifiable using this technique.” In fact, it is already in use. Police uploaded an old DNA sample from the case of the Golden State Killer, who terrorised California in the 1970s and 1980s. Sure enough, he had family on GEDmatch (a DNA data sharing platform) that let police figure out who he was. This tactic has led to more than a dozen arrests in numerous investigations.

While privacy is a hot topic at the moment, and many consumers are worried about the mis-use of their data, the consumer DNA space shows little sign of slowing down: the reason might be that we’re all fascinated with ourselves. We want to know where we came from and what we’re made up of.

It’s also true that the consumer DNA space is a major driver of innovation not just in law enforcement, but in healthcare, where big pharmaceutical companies can mine genetic data for information that helps to create personalised medicine for a number of demographics. Even advertisers can get in on the game: looking to sell a substitute milk? Why not put it in front of people who carry the genes for lactose intolerance?

Disclosure

Dominion holds Alphabet, a major stakeholder in consumer DNA testing company 23andMe, in its Global Trends Managed Fund.


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