Consumer DNA tests raise privacy concerns

Katarzyna Borkowska

A recently popular trend throughout the United States has been genealogical DNA testing. A person sends a sample of their DNA to a facility, two popular ones being LLC and 23andMe, and in return, they obtain an analysis of their DNA and ethnic background.

The idea behind DNA testing — giving people an insight into their heritage as well as their roots — is fantastic. People tend to overlook just how diverse their ancestry can be, having been influenced by generations of wars and migrations. DNA facilities open doors for people that might have no connection to their birth relatives, and give them answers to questions that they might not even realize they have.

Privacy questions have since arisen. Police may request DNA information from these facilities if they have a warrant. 23andMe has claimed that it has not turned over any information to law enforcement. However, Kate Black, the 23andMe privacy officer, stated that the idea is not ruled out for the future. “We would always review a request and take it on a case-by-case basis,” Black mentioned.

Black also said that “[The company tries] to make information available on the website in various forms, so through Frequently Asked Questions, through information in our privacy center.” This disclosure is not that obvious at first glance, however. The FAQ section of the company’s site is filled with information about privacy, but none of it pertains to the actions taken in the case of a law enforcement request for DNA. To find this information, one must browse throughout the site or directly look up the law enforcement guide.

When buying the kit, consumers think more about the results they will receive rather than about their DNA being made available in a criminal investigation. The idea that law enforcement can request DNA information from DNA testing companies is also an issue. The policy is that an officer of the law must have a warrant to obtain a DNA sample from the person in question. Bypassing the interaction with the person is wrong. Law enforcement officers could also use the DNA samples from one of these companies to find a relative of a person they are investigating. This interferes with consent issues from the relative in question, as they did not give their private DNA to any company for law enforcement officials to later obtain.

Looking at the big picture, allowing law enforcement the right to scour databases for a DNA match might be convenient and make the job of finding someone easier. However, it takes away from a person’s privacy. The method would allow officers to search databases for not only the person in question, but also their relatives. It is one thing to give up one’s rights as an adult, but it is another to give up someone else’s rights by relation. Police should have to go through court to obtain a warrant for a specific individual, not a whole company that someone gave a DNA sample to for a different, unrelated reason. If companies continue with this policy, there should be more indicators available to anyone purchasing the DNA kits.