DNA Test Kits are a Terrible Idea for Consumers
A funny thing happened this past Christmas. My wife and I were enjoying the holidays at our in-laws, celebrating and opening gifts. My mother-in-law opened a gift from a relative (I won’t say who) and immediately cringed at the contents: an at-home DNA test kit. We all had a good laugh at her reaction, but it raised an excellent point: DNA test kits are a terrible idea for consumers.
On the surface, these kits sound like a fun and interesting way to learn more about your heritage. The kits themselves are fairly basic, mainly consisting of a saliva-collection tube and a return mailer. Just spit in a tube, send your DNA to a bunch of strangers, and get a report on your ancestry a few months later. What could go wrong?
DNA Test Kits Aren’t Particularly Accurate
Each company offering DNA testing services uses their own proprietary database of DNA samples to determine their customer’s genetic ancestry. Since there is no universal database of human DNA to pull from, each company is limited to their own customer base and their own proprietary algorithm. This means the results can vary widely from company to company.
For determining where your ancestors came from, the results can be murky at best. The algorithms do not scan a customer’s entire genome, but rather specific pairs of genes located on specific chromosomes. Then, genetic variations called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that have different frequencies across geographical populations are evaluated. Essentially, these tests do not really tell you where your ancestors came from, but where DNA like yours can be found in the world today.
And then there’s the story about one company not being able to tell the difference between human DNA and a sample collected from a Labrador retriever, so accuracy should be taken with a grain of salt.
Your DNA Could be Sold to Third Parties
If Facebook has taught us anything over the past few years, it’s that your personal data is a hot commodity. If you think that your DNA is exempt from that, or that companies buying genetic data are the paranoid delusions of someone who’s seen a few too many episodes of Black Mirror, it’s not. In fact, it’s already happening.
In July of 2018, it was announced that drug manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline had struck a $300 million partnership deal with 23andMe to discover medicines using human genetics as a guide. Under the deal, 23andMe would provide GSK with anonymized, de-identified genetic information (more on that shortly) for research purposes. Another company, Ancestry, was also involved in a research partnership with Calico Life Sciences, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc.
And while users do have to sign consent forms before companies can sell their DNA to third parties, anyone who has ever tried to read a user agreement knows how vague the language can be. Terms and conditions, user agreements, and privacy policies can change over time. Companies can be bought and sold. The laws protecting the privacy of genetic information are woefully incomplete, and researchers at MIT managed to successfully identify the donors behind five “anonymous” samples in less than a day. It’s not hard to imagine why privacy advocates are horrified by DNA test kits.
Your DNA is Vulnerable to Hacking
The companies offering these DNA test kits tout the privacy and security of their services, but we live in a world where data breaches happen constantly. DNA testing company MyHeritage already suffered a data breach in 2018, which resulted in over 92 million email addresses and passwords being leaked. Thankfully, customer DNA data was stored on different servers and were not part of the breach, but with the constant arms race between hackers and cybersecurity, it’s only a matter of time.