In the future, not even your DNA will be sacred

Commentary: Even if you haven't shared your DNA with a genealogy website, chances are you're identifiable now. (Spoiler: Your third cousin sold you out).

Claire Reilly Former Principal Video Producer
Claire Reilly was a video host, journalist and producer covering all things space, futurism, science and culture. Whether she's covering breaking news, explaining complex science topics or exploring the weirder sides of tech culture, Claire gets to the heart of why technology matters to everyone. She's been a regular commentator on broadcast news, and in her spare time, she's a cabaret enthusiast, Simpsons aficionado and closet country music lover. She originally hails from Sydney but now calls San Francisco home.
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  • Webby Award Winner (Best Video Host, 2021), Webby Nominee (Podcasts, 2021), Gold Telly (Documentary Series, 2021), Silver Telly (Video Writing, 2021), W3 Award (Best Host, 2020), Australian IT Journalism Awards (Best Journalist, Best News Journalist 2017)
Claire Reilly
4 min read
Test Tube through Keyhole

How secure is your DNA profile?

Nick Rowe/Getty Images

It started simply enough. Janet invited you over for a dinner and a couple of glasses of Savvy B with the girls. In between talking about your Bachelorette brackets and plans to dismantle the apparatus of the patriarchy, you all decided it would be a bit of fun to send your DNA off to one of those genealogy companies.

"Wouldn't it be a laugh!" said Britt.

"I can't wait to send my spit to a stranger on the internet!" said Chanel.

But you politely declined. You, dear reader, the one with the holier-than-thou Angel of Privacy on your shoulder, you resisted the urge to spit in an envelope and sell that last, unchangeable part of your biological identity to a tech giant in Utah.

Read more: The best DNA testing kits for 2019

You quietly sipped your sauvignon and watched as the girls swabbed their slimes. That was four to six weeks ago and you haven't looked back.

But I have terrible news for you.

It doesn't matter that you didn't send off a kit to find out exactly how much of a special snowflake you are. You can probably be identified in a DNA database anyway.

According to research published last week by Columbia University scientist Yaniv Erlich, more than half of the American population (60 percent) with European ancestry can now be identified through a third cousin or closer relative on consumer DNA registries like AncestryDNA and 23andme.

And that figure is growing. Thanks to Middle America's desire to volunteer their biological samples for a certificate of genealogical authenticity, Erlich (who's now chief science officer at genealogy website MyHeritage) says these sites "could implicate nearly any US individual of European descent in the near future."

And "implicate" is right. In April this year, police credited a consumer DNA database with helping them to dramatically narrow down their search for the Golden State Killer, leading to an arrest 40 years after the serial rapist and murderer started his crime spree. 

So the stakes are high. 

Millions of people have already filled the DNA filing cabinets at these companies. Some of them do it to screen for disease risks. Some, to find long-lost family members. Sen. Elizabeth Warren took a DNA test in an effort to validate her claims of Native American ancestry and push back against taunts by President Trump.

And some people no doubt just want to find an easy way to finish the stupid history project Mrs. Wilson assigned them in the 10th grade.

Whatever the reason, the industry is booming. Ancestry alone says it has DNA-tested more than 10 million people.

And those numbers now mean it doesn't really matter if you sent away your DNA. All that matters is your third cousin wanted to send her most deeply personal data to a company on the internet. She did the 2018 equivalent of naming a star online and mailed away for a certificate she's going to look at once. Hell, she was probably the same cousin who decided to "share her friends' data" with Cambridge Analytica so she could play some farming game on Facebook.

But you're the one who's going to pay for it. Now you can be identified thanks to some dipshit's spit kit.

The genealogy sites themselves are keen to reassure customers that privacy is their No. 1  priority.

Ancestry says that its "highest priority is protecting our customers' privacy and being good stewards of their data" and that it offers customers the ability to opt in or out of "match viewability." It also says it challenges legal requests for DNA matching, and doesn't provide data to law enforcement "unless compelled to by valid legal process."

23andMe says it "implements strong security and privacy protocols" but that once a user downloads their raw data and uploads it to another site, the company can't guarantee the data is protected. 

MyHeritage didn't respond to a request for comment.

But being identifiable through your DNA, even when you haven't shared it, could be a grim sign of where the future is heading.

Those things that once made us human are becoming easier to quantify, track and replicate. Our voices can be perfectly re-created by computers, our mannerisms can be copied by artificial intelligence. Cameras on the street track our faces, speakers in our homes listen to our conversations, even our fingerprints are no longer just stored on our fingers. And soon, the very substance of our physical selves, our DNA, will be looked after by someone else.

Cheerful two generation women with wine glasses in kitchen

"Why would we ask you about our family's history, Grandma? Let's just do it with internet spit instead!"

Getty Images

No thought of the potential of a data breach. No thought of a potential future in which insurance companies scan your DNA without your knowledge to adjust your premiums, or your employer looks for potential health risks, or the police search for markers of pre-crime (Minority Report was a documentary, right?).

When I think about the future machinery of the biometric surveillance state, as I often do when I'm having a glass of wine with Janet and the girls, I feel like I'm the only one who's paranoid about protecting my DNA. I wail at my friends, John Proctor-like, when they ask me why I won't spit in an envelope.

"Because it is my DNA! Because I cannot have another in my life! I have given you my soul, and my passwords and my fingerprints; leave me my DNA!"

But it's no use.

In the future, when I'm trying to outrun the DNA Police in the dark sewers of New Biometrica, it won't be my fault.

"It wasn't me!" I'll yell. "It was my third cousin!"

But they won't care.

Originally published at 5:00 a.m. PT.
Updated at 7:18 a.m. PT: Added reference to Elizabeth Warren's DNA test.
Updated at 5:10 p.m. PT: Added comment from 23andMe.

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