“People can take away your assets, but not your DNA.”
– Simon Spurr
One major component of DNA testing in everyday life is finding out what our genes (the stuff DNA contains) tell us about our ancestors and where they (and thus, we) originated and migrated from, back to our biological Adams and Eves. There are any number of for-profit companies on the market that will analyze a provided sample of spit or cheek cells and send you a report. It is a billion-dollar industry. It seems a great many of us have a natural curiosity to know, and I am among that many.
I’ve had mine done by two different well-known companies (Ancestry and MyHeritage) and I have to admit frustration in their results – they are wildly different, in both ethnic origins and/or percentages of same, and I don’t know which, or neither, to believe.
That was unexpected.
How can the same DNA, the same genes, be read differently? It seems according to the different algorithms – the set of computer-written rules used to “read” the genetic strands – used by each company. Apparently, not all DNA testing services are equal in their results. (Twice in the last three months I’ve asked MyHeritage to explain to me why I should believe their results over Ancestry’s. I’m still waiting for an answer.) I’m sorely tempted to submit to a third company to see what they say, and if its results are even somewhat different than the other two, then maybe all this business is just that – just another business, conning us out of our money. So, be warned should you be interested.
And here’s another warning. How safe is your DNA in the database of these companies, is your privacy scrupulously guarded against intrusions by computer hackers or unscrupulous employees? It’s something of concern, considering your DNA is everything about you, much more important than your social security number or the PIN or password to your bank account, or the key to your front door.
Simon Spurr (above) is wrong. Your DNA can be stolen, if you consider someone using it without your permission stealing.
US Senator Chuck Schumer last week said there is a need for greater scrutiny over if and how the companies sell their DNA databases to others. “DNA testing firms don’t clearly disclose to consumers exactly what they are doing with the DNA once a person’s cheek swab is sent in to the company,” Schumer said. “Most people, if they knew that this information could be sold to third parties, would think twice,” he added. He is urging the Federal Trade Commission to examine and ensure that these companies have “clear, fair privacy policies.” (And security against hackers, I pray.) “[Some] are selling it to you on the front end, and they are commercializing it on the back end,” Bennett Greenspan, president and founder of Family Tree DNA (one of the more popular testing companies) has warned. Michelle De Mooy, director of the privacy and data project at the Center for Democracy & Technology, has noted that consumers may find that their DNA is being provided to outside others.
And even if it’s not being sold or otherwise provided, “It’s really inevitable that these databases will be breached” by hackers, says Mooy, “This is just tempting, tempting data.” Data to be sold to the highest bidder.
Whom might that be?
How about ad agencies, all the better to target personalized products for you based on your ethnic background (for example)?
How about life or health or auto insurance companies, or even a potential employer, if the test shows genetic predispositions to certain behaviours or diseases (which could be used to deny coverage or increase premiums, or a job offer)? Peter Pitts, president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest asks the question, “If you had a genetic test, and your genetic test showed that you might be predisposed to develop early onset Alzheimer’s Disease, and that information was made public, how would your employer feel about that?” Or your insurance company?
How about an identity thief? Pitts poses the question, “If people are trying to imitate you based on your Social Security number, imagine the damage they could cause impersonating you on the genetic level.”
How about the government (probably the only thing they already don’t have on you is your DNA, unless you’ve been arrested/convicted)? What government ever hasn’t wanted to know everything it can find about its citizens (knowledge equals power/manipulation which equals control)?
How about the police?
A recent news article by Claudia Lauer (Associated Press) tells how Brown County (Texas) sheriff’s investigators have tried to solve a murder case, despite having no witnesses. A sketch “was created using DNA found at the crime scene; a private lab used the sample to predict the shape of the killer’s face, his skin tone, eye color and hair color. Within a week, the sheriff’s office had a suspect in custody…the DNA sketch [used] technology known as phenotyping… For law enforcement officers, it’s a relatively new tool that can generate leads in cold cases or narrow a suspect pool.”
[Based on the drawing, public recognition of the sketched face has lead to a “suspect”. He hasn’t yet been arrested for the murder they were investigating. However, he is under arrest for another murder he’s subsequently confessed to.]
But, Lauer also noted, “[F]or some ethicists and lawyers, it’s an untested advancement that if used incorrectly could lead to racial profiling or ensnaring innocent people…Releasing a sketch of a suspect without any witnesses seems like a dangerous proposition… Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, said that from what scientists have said and written, not enough is known about the link between genes and facial features to rely on the technology to produce a suspect (‘You can lose weight, gain weight, change gender, grow a beard, have plastic surgery,’ Stanley said. ‘It risks ensnaring innocent people in webs of suspicious investigations. It risks playing on existing societal racial prejudices. It risks diverting investigations down wild goose chases. If this technology were used to set up dragnets say to bring in every albino person in an area as a suspect because the DNA seemed to show someone had that trait, that’s where we would object.’)”
Let’s hope someone would object.
I don’t want to sound like a Chicken Little, nor am I much given to conspiracy theories, but sometimes there are unintended results from the things we do. Or the things we trust others with.
Maybe having your DNA tested might prove to be one of those things with unintended results.
Nonetheless, as I wrote above, if two of the highest rated DNA testing companies can’t agree on what your genes have to say about your ethnicity, why even bother?