The growing popularity of consumer DNA testing has helped law enforcement make arrests in decades-old crimes that would otherwise have remained cold cases.
That may not be entirely good news for the rest of us, because using the technology to trace DNA to suspected criminals requires police to use a whole lot of other people’s genetic data, too. Like cell phone data a decade ago, it’s hard to say how all this information might be employed in the future. Imagine drug companies using it to target ads, life insurers using vast networks of relatedness to determine risk, or a scorned ex-lover employing the technique in some very 21st century stalking.
Millions of U.S. consumers are paying genetic testing companies to analyze their spit, and the data of at least two leading genealogy websites are now accessible to law enforcement. Yaniv Erlich, a Columbia professor who’s the chief science officer at DNA testing company MyHeritage, estimates that only 2 percent of people with European ancestry—the majority of DNA testing customers—might need to share their data to identify samples from the other 98 percent. At this point, there’s little hope of keeping such information private, so experts are advocating for measures to protect it, such as the creation of one giant, central DNA database to which access could theoretically be controlled and regulated. “There is no absolute protection anymore for anyone’s data, genetic or not,” says Barbara Prainsack, a political scientist who studies ethics in forensics and life sciences at the University of Vienna.