It's easier and cheaper now than ever to share your uniquely identifying, highly sensitive genetic information with private companies.
The tax authority IRS has just decided to give tax breaks to holders of tax-advantaged health accounts who are purchasing 23andMe's genetic-testing kits.
The company – whose co-founder and CEO is Anne Wojcicki, the sister of YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and the former wife of Google founder Sergei Brin – offers a range of genetic testing whereby users can see the results online. In 2007, Google invested $3.9 million on the company.
The IRS decision concerns that portion which ostensibly deals with health – i.e., with an increased possibility of developing certain serious diseases.
Other tests offered by 23andMe include determining a person's genetic ancestry and such things as “food-taste preferences” and wellness, the Wall Street Journal (WJS) writes.
Thanks to the decision, the company announced, “consumers can claim up to $117.74 of the $199 cost of a health-and-ancestry kit as medical care for tax purposes.”
And even though the IRS considers the health-related part of the test-kits to fall under medical care, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't quite agree.
While authorizing the company to market health-related tests, it also told medical professionals and 23andMe consumers not to use these tests when choosing medical treatment, and to repeat them again in a clinical lab.
The WSJ article doesn't mention the other concern – beyond 23andMe's and similar tests not really being proper health tests – and that is consumer privacy.
But when they send their DNA samples to private companies, consumers are parting with the most sensitive data about their identity and health, that could easily be used to discriminate against them.
Nevertheless, according to an earlier report from CNBC more than 80 percent of consumers “agree to let the company share their DNA with research partners.”
These people apparently have altruistic motivations, and trust the companies in question.
The article argues that this behavior may be risky given the lax legal protections and regulation around the handling of genetic data – and that consumers at the very least “should try to understand what the consequences are.”
Also, one of the “partners” that these companies might be asked to share genetic data with are law enforcement and other government agencies – and 23andMe at the time did not explicitly say this would never happen, promising instead only to “resist” such demands.