New Study Says Enough People Have Sequenced Their DNA to Endanger Others' Privacy

Friday, 12 October 2018 - 1:53PM
Technology
Medical Tech
Genetic Engineering
Friday, 12 October 2018 - 1:53PM
New Study Says Enough People Have Sequenced Their DNA to Endanger Others' Privacy
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Composite from Pixabay
Sending your DNA off to a genealogy company like 23 and Me and filling the gaps in your family tree has become a fascinating little pastime for tens of thousands of people, and has even spawned TV shows like Finding Your Roots, which often draw surprising connections between celebrities and historical figures (like Tina Fey and Benjamin Franklin). One of the big selling points of these services is that the sequenced DNA becomes public but anonymous, allowing people to find matches to people they weren't even looking for. Now, however, a new study has found that with an anonymous person's genetic code and some basic information about them (such as where they live and their approximate age), you can use the DNA of their relations to track down their identity.

This has already been borne out in the hunt for the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo. Despite having the killer's DNA, the police couldn't match it with any suspects. Instead, they plugged it into a DNA database like GEDMatch, which allows someone to find people who might be related by matching up single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), genetic markers that are shared by those in the same family. After finding the identities of the distant relatives turned up by the database, the police started working down the family tree and seeing who fit the description of the killer. Eventually, they ended up with the 72-year-old DeAngelo.

That may seem like a very unlikely story, but according to Columbia University's Yaniv Erlich, who led a team of researchers on the new study, there are now enough publicly available DNA sequences to allow roughly 60% of Americans of European descent to be identified in a manner similar to the Golden State Killer. To demonstrate this, Erlich's team tracked down the identity of a Utah woman who had previously been identified in another study. This, the study says, has huge implications if people and companies continue making DNA public.

According to Erlich: "When the police caught the Golden State Killer, that was a very good day for humanity. The problem is that the very same strategy can be misused."
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