Thursday, February 7, 2013

Stop the DNA Insanity!

    If you Google ‘DNA’ and ‘privacy’ you will get over 200 million articles describing the potential dangers. Imagine if your DNA information got into the wrong hands. Why isn’t someone doing something about this problem?

       A recent study claims that public DNA records can be analyzed to determine the surname of the donor and the algorithm is correct 12% of the time. This is outrageous! To think that an adoptee might actually be able to use DNA to find their birth parents. Unthinkable!

    Before you get a DNA test and add the results to a public database, remember, that your DNA is not yours alone. Your genetic information is a shared attribute across your entire family. You would be unintentionally sharing data about your children’s and your descendant’s DNA. Your genetic ancestry is also the ancestry of your parents and your cousins. You could be putting your entire tribe at risk.

    Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s cousin’s DNA is publicly available. I’m fairly certain that his genetic information was used against him and caused his bid to fail. This is serious.

    Sharing DNA data should be stopped. It’s not yours to share.

    There is too much data out there that puts our privacy at risk. Many States allow public access to vital records. Anyone can walk in and look at my birth record. They will figure out how old I am and where I was born. I’ll have to stop using that information as a challenge question on my bank website. My birth record will allow someone to calculate when my parents were intimate. I shudder with disbelief. A marriage record might tell you how many times the woman has been married - the harlot. A death certificate will tell you where they are buried. There’s no privacy even in death.

    If your family tree is public, then anyone and their brother could study it and then call you claiming to be a long lost cousin. They will be able to talk about great-aunt Edna and recently departed cousin Roy. Next thing you know you are loaning them money. Genealogy should be outlawed. History should stay history. I’m not sure it is worth the inherent risks.

    It doesn’t end there. There are other sources of your information. There are digital phone books and land records. If someone sees my driver’s license, they will know where I live. I’m not safe in my own home. It may be time to go off grid. Perhaps the Luddites had it right.

    Life is risky.

    Getting out of bed every morning is risky. You could stub your toe. We do it anyway because it is worth living. What we do in our lives and the legacy that we leave behind will define who we were. We don’t have time to worry ‘excessively’ about privacy. The bottom line is that if someone wants your information, there will always be a way to get it. Restrictions on public data of any kind would end genealogy research. Today, if I wanted some of your DNA, there is probably a dozen ways for collection - a drinking glass, envelope, cigarette butt or dirty tissue. Tomorrow, with advances in technology a person could walk up to you on the street, shake your hand and process your DNA in their pocket.

    With every new technology advance like DNA testing, there will be those folks that identify the potential risks. Depending on the severity of the risk, there will be other groups of folks who either fix the technology problem or create laws to mitigate the risks. The rest of us need to be actively vocal to make sure that we get the maximum amount of benefit for the minimum danger.

    The fastest way to stop a trend, good or bad, is to announce to the world that the trend exists. Corrective forces kick in and the ship gets righted. In the 70s, Alvin Toffler predicted that we would be overwhelmed by technological change. Forty years later and I’m still a bit underwhelmed.

    As genealogists, the best way to collaborate is to share. I want to find other researchers and I want to be found. None of that will happen if my DNA or family tree is in a box under the bed. DNA can help break down walls where paper records don’t exist. Our genes will unlock doors to our origins.

    Your DNA is your DNA. Unless you are an identical twin, your genes are unique. There are pieces of your DNA that are shared across families, which is why genetic genealogy works. As a whole, your DNA belongs to you and you have the right to use it as you see fit.

    Information wants to be free. Stop worrying and start living. Get tested.


  1. Really, really like your ironic opening section. Even though I knew you were being ironic, those thoughts echoed many that I've been hearing expressed! Hooray for you, being at the frontier of the debate! People like to freak out over "privacy" these days. I think it wasn't always so. Read a book "Private Matters" by Janna Malamud Smith, who argues (as I recall) that privacy is an invention of fairly recent times.

    Totally agree that information will out. "Stop worrying and start living." Sounds good to me! Thanks for an exceptionally thoughtful post.

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