Okay, step back, take a deep breath, and chill out.
Yes, genetic genealogy has taken it on the chin this week with lots of news stories that make it sound as though taking a DNA test to find out information about your family is the functional equivalent of posting the password to your bank account online.
(a) It ain’t such a parade of horribles as the news articles makes it sound, and
(b) You’re putting more — and more personal — information than that online every day, so
(c) Just what are you worried about anyway?
Let’s go through these one by one.
The news articles are reporting on the fact that a team of scientists managed to identify by name people who’ve taken DNA tests and who’ve allowed their results to be included in various study databases. The databases generally include an individual’s gender, age and area (state, usually) of residence. The scientists identified specific markers in Y-DNA, identified a likely surname from publicly available genetic genealogy databases and then used other public databases to locate likely candidates of the right age, surname and geographic area.1
Now the combination of factors that has to be true for someone to be identified here is pretty substantial. You have to be male (women don’t have the specific DNA type used for this), you have to have donated your DNA test results to a public database, that database has to include your age and your state of residence, your DNA has to match DNA in a publicly-accessible genetic genealogy database and your surname has to be the same as that of the others whose DNA is in that database. Oh, and then you have to confirm that it’s you when the researchers contact you about it.
Somehow this doesn’t quite strike me as requiring the “the sky is falling” reporting we’ve seen in the past 48 hours. And it most assuredly does not require the “nobody should ever do DNA testing for genealogy” knee-jerk response we’re seeing either.
In the first place, most people who do genetic genealogy testing aren’t also dumping their test results into public databases — and that’s necessary for this privacy issue to arise. None of the testing companies we use day to day — AncestryDNA, FamilyTree DNA and 23 and Me — makes its genetic genealogy data available for public research with any identifying information (age, location, etc.) without our consent. So this just isn’t the threat the popular media is making it out to be.
Now let’s talk about what information you’re putting online already. Chances are pretty good that you have a Facebook account. If you do, and you’re my Facebook friend, I probably know your full name, your spouse’s name, your kids’ names, how old the family members are, where at least your college age kids go to school, where you live, your pets’ names, the last time you went to the doctor, deaths in your extended family and maybe even what you had for breakfast.
I know what trips you’ve taken, what trips you’re planning to take, if you’ve had car trouble, what the weather’s been like, whether you’ve recently given up your land line in favor of a cellphone and a whole lot about your politics, your religion and your sexual preferences.
Now multiply that by what tweets you retweet, what you post on Google+, what you’ve pinned on Pinterest and the list of often highly personal data that we all share publicly all the time in this day of social media.
And we’re genealogists, for crying’ out loud. We post our parents’ names, birthdates, birthplaces, their parents and so on back to Adam if we can. We’re not shrinking lilies hiding in the background — every last one of us is hoping that long lost second (or third or fourth) cousin finds us with all the cousin bait we throw out in public.
And you’re worried about someone finding out who you are from your DNA???
Why? Just what are you afraid of? Big bad government gonna come take you to jail? Um… Not unless you’ve committed some crime lately you haven’t bothered telling us about. (And they won’t be getting your DNA from genetic genealogy sites if they’re investigating you for a crime.2)
Me, I’m with Harvard geneticist George Church. His position is that we simply tell people the truth when we ask them to DNA test and we all grow up and deal with the consequences.3
So I repeat: let’s all step back, take a deep breath, and chill out.
The sky is not falling.
- See Gina Kolata, Web Hunt for DNA Sequences Leaves Privacy Compromised,” The New York Times, online, posted 17 Jan 2013 (http://www.nytimes.com : accessed 19 Jan 2013). ↩
- See Judy G. Russell, “DNA and paranoia,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 11 Jan 2012 (http://legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 19 Jan 2013.) ↩
- See Eryn Brown, “Geneticist on DNA privacy: Make it so people don’t care,” Los Angeles Times online, posted 18 Jan 2013 (http://www.latimes.com : accessed 19 Jan 2013). ↩