Over the last few years, the genealogy community has shown great interest in establishing ethics boards. Their concern is that it is now far too easy to modify one’s genetic makeup in very unpredictable ways. And while we’re still not quite there yet, there’s a much more relevant concern on the horizon.
Websites like Ancestry.com and 23andMe claim to be able to track one’s lineage as well as other health information with high levels of accuracy. This has lead to an explosive interest in the market, without much concern for what could be potentially done with that data. This is of course exacerbated by the invasion of home DNA kits into the market, making it easier and cheaper than ever to submit your DNA to one of these companies.
Senior Pentagon officials have warned members of the Armed Forces to not engage in home DNA kits, which otherwise may seem like innocent fun. Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Joseph Kernan and Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness James Stewart said in a December 20 memo that DNA testing companies are targeting military members with discounts and other undisclosed incentives.
The concern seems to be well-reasoned. People have been making incorrect medical decisions based on inaccurate test results, which would carry far more consequences in the case of the military. Another risk is that of providing this DNA data to these companies. Of course, DNA data contains all the biological and genetic information that could be obtained about a person, opening up a whole new level of privacy concern. As an example, insurance companies can use this information to deny coverage for conditions one is likely to develop, or to adjust their pricing accordingly.
23andMe has responded saying it takes the “utmost efforts” to protect consumer privacy and don’t share information with third parties without explicit consent. Ancestry.com has made similar claims.
Consumer advocates are advising everyone to pay close attention to the fine print, as this could be another way in which corporations can use our information for marketing or insurance purposes. And unlike most other data, it can’t be changed or hidden.