At-home DNA kits from brands like 23andMe and Ancestry are very popular holiday gifts. They may also be destroying whatever semblance of privacy Americans may have left.
It’s not the DNA kits themselves that are a problem — it’s the databases being used to store the information. While most people view these commercial DNA tests as either a novelty that can help them explore their family’s history, others use them to find long-lost (or hitherto unknown) relatives. To that end, many companies have created forums for people to upload their test results and look for genetic connections among others.
Genetic investigations are getting more attention
It didn’t take long for the police to figure out that they could use those tools for genetic investigations, especially where cold cases were concerned.
About two years ago, for example, in a widely-publicized arrest, the man known as the “Golden State Killer” was arrested for a string of murders, burglaries and rapes that happened back in the 1970s-80s after police were able to compare his genetic material — left long ago at crime scenes — to the genetic information in some of those online databases. While he wasn’t in the database himself, enough of his relatives were there that police were able to refine their search and hone in on him.
Be careful what part of your privacy you give up
While it’s easy to justify the use of such databases for cases like these, doing so ignores the fact that the “open book” policies of these DNA companies is essentially giving the police the ability to find out whatever they want — about whomever they want. Normally, the only way the police would have access to your genetic material is if you had already been convicted of a felony or had been required to turn over a cheek swab or other sample through a court order.
It’s wise to be cautious about handing your personal information — genetic or otherwise — over to anyone who isn’t required to keep it private. You may find yourself involved in a criminal case someday over it.