23andMe offers an alluring service, but it might not be worth the risk to your privacy.
November 30, 2018
You can discover what you can about your genetic background, family, and the probability of getting certain diseases. Talk about technological advancement.
People said the same thing in 2006 when Facebook had people “… start sharing and connecting with your friends, family, and people you know.”
But companies like 23andMe have even greater potential to mishandle your most sensitive private data, just like Facebook did. They also have the potential for unethical “biobanking” of your DNA.
They aren’t starting off on the right foot, either. From their own website, they make a vague statement that shouldn’t inspire trust:
By choosing to have 23andMe store either your saliva sample or DNA extracted from your saliva, you are consenting to having 23andMe and its contractors access and analyze your stored sample, using the same or more advanced technologies.
From this one sentence out of several paragraphs, we discover at least three uncomfortable “grey areas”…
- How long do they get to store your sample?
- Who are “its contractors”? Who could they be in the future?
- What are “more advanced technologies”? How could those be used in ways that are uncomfortable to you?
According to the same part of their website, 23andMe gets to store your DNA for 10 years unless “they notify you otherwise.” (So they could store it longer?)
But other “contractors” could be anybody, at any time. And if 23andMe goes the Facebook route, if there’s money to be had… they just may exploit the opportunity.
And since this consent document says 23andMe can store your saliva or DNA, what if technological advances allow them to do something else with your saliva?
Then what? Are you supposed to just trust them not to go down Facebook Rd.? I certainly wouldn’t. But this potential privacy invasion doesn’t only apply to 23andMe.
Ancestry.com also makes you work pretty hard to protect your privacy. According to Business Insider, you can actually delete your DNA results with a few clicks. But if you want them to toss your spit sample, you have to call a special number.
Ancestry has more than 800,000 samples, and 23andMe has millions of DNA samples in their databases. A treasure-trove for unscrupulous agencies to try and access. And it’s not like police haven’t tried, according to Techdirt:
In Usry’s case the crime scene DNA bore numerous similarities to that of Usry’s father, who years earlier had donated a DNA sample to a genealogy project through his Mormon church in Mississippi. That project’s database was later purchased by Ancestry, which made it publicly searchable — a decision that didn’t take into account the possibility that cops might someday use it to hunt for genetic leads.
But it gets worse, because this could affect innocent people like you and me. The same Techdirt article later revealed a shocking finding:
…it’s entirely possible that completely innocent people might have to go through the traumatic experience of being a suspect just as Usry did before more precise tests ruled him out.
Those “precise tests” you could be forced to take as a suspect could then put you in a searchable database. Even if you didn’t want to submit your DNA in the first place.
According to their privacy statement, a company called Helix can store your DNA indefinitely. Hopefully they never have a security breach.
Bottom line, you shouldn’t treat the decision to submit your DNA for analysis lightly. Even if you can find out useful information, the price you pay may not be worth it.
And right now, the rest of your private life is an open book that any “bored” Government agency or individual with cheap technology can exploit.
With just a few clicks, a phone call, and a few dollars almost everything someone wants to find out about you can quickly be put together into a complete file.
And who knows how some stranger (including federal law enforcement) will use that information? So you need to start protecting your privacy any way you can, right now…
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P.S. Ancestry and 23andMe are just the beginning. Soon there will be other companies asking you to blindly trust them, hoping you won’t read their privacy policies.
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