Go Ahead. Violate My Genetic Privacy. See If I Care!

An article in the current issue of Science reports that researchers at the Whitehead Institute in Boston have been able to combine online genetic data from the 1000 Genomes Project with genealogical data available elsewhere on the Internet to identify specific individuals. From the press release:

[Whitehead Fellow Yaniv] Erlich and colleagues began by analyzing unique genetic markers known as short tandem repeats on the Y chromosomes (Y-STRs) of men whose genetic material was collected by the Center for the Study of Human Polymorphisms (CEPH) and whose genomes were sequenced and made publicly available as part of the 1000 Genomes Project. Because the Y chromosome is transmitted from father to son, as are family surnames, there is a strong correlation between surnames and the DNA on the Y chromosome.

Recognizing this correlation, genealogists and genetic genealogy companies have established publicly accessible databases that house Y-STR data by surname. In a process known as “surname inference,” the Erlich team was able to discover the family names of the men by submitting their Y-STRs to these databases. With surnames in hand, the team queried other information sources, including Internet record search engines, obituaries, genealogical websites, and public demographic data from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) Human Genetic Cell Repository at New Jersey’s Coriell Institute, to identify nearly 50 men and women in the United States who were CEPH participants.

Previous studies have contemplated the possibility of genetic identification by matching the DNA of a single person, assuming the person’s DNA were cataloged in two separate databases. This work, however, exploits data between distant paternally-related individuals. As a result, the team notes that the posting of genetic data from a single individual can reveal deep genealogical ties and lead to the identification of a distantly-related person who may have no acquaintance with the person who released that genetic data.

Yawn. Really, what is the big deal? If some portion of the public is spooked over the vacuous concept of "genetic privacy," researchers who listened to the ditherings of certain bioethicists have only themselves to blame. An accompanying policy article in Science does note:

The general expectations of the public about privacy and confidentiality may be subtly shifting as well. In addition to social media outlets (e.g., Facebook) that have led to more pervasive sharing of personal details, patient-centric organizations (e.g., PatientsLikeMe) now provide the means to share in-depth information about health status and to identify research opportunities for motivated individuals.

Well, yes. And there's lots more of that kind of genetic self-revelation and sharing coming down the pike. More and more people are realizing that concerns over genetic privacy are way exaggerated as I explained in my article, "I'll Show You My Genome. Will You Show Me Yours?" If you're interested, click on over to SNPedia and take a look at my many genetic flaws.

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  • ||

    My concern would be the government using that information to screw with me through Obamacare or deciding that such and such gene means my rights can be taken away.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Go Ahead. Violate My Genetic Privacy. See If I Care!

    As soon as they peek into your genetic code, they'll see if you're predisposed to caring.

  • Tim||

    Bailey's cranking 'em out today.

  • Paul.||

    In a process known as “surname inference,” the Erlich team was able to discover the family names of the men by submitting their Y-STRs to these databases.

    I heard this story yesterday on NPR, and it raised more questions than it answered. According to the researchers, they took the DNA and compared it with popular genealogy websites and then whipped on over to Facebook.

    From there they did the 'inference' test which sounded remarkably like that shit that 'security expert' was doing where he claimed he could figure out who you were using his patented technique of crawling social networking sites and 'discovering' all sorts of things about you. Reason did a post on that a few years back.

    The idea that if you voluntarily get your DNA tested and then WHAMMO the receptionist knows your address and what hours your home-- lot of steps between those two things.

    I mean, I find out all kinds of things about people around me that I only have a name on, because of facebook and it has nothing to do with DNA. When you voluntarily put shit on facebook, it does become kind of a central repository of correlated data.

    I personally think that the ability to tie in the DNA with the name had more to do with their technique than the actual DNA did.

    I'd doubld-dog dare these guys to personally identify me with only a dna strand in their hands.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    I wonder if they have Warty DNA or STEVE SMITH DNA? Might be fun to look for shirttail relatives of either of them.

  • ||

    It is only a matter of time before we all have a little (or a lot! YMMV) STEVE SMITH and Warty DNA in us.

  • ||

    You're one to speak, after all the times you fucked my stupid sexy dad.

  • ||

    You can be sure I violated that hot piece of genetic privacy repeatedly. For science.

  • Mandate Amendment||

    Wait until they start mandating this type of "health care". We need the Mandate Amendment now!

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