When it comes to online privacy concerns, Google and Facebook get most of the attention. But another growing online industry may pose an even bigger privacy threat--genealogy. DNA-testing sites likeAncestry have exploded in popularity in recent years, with Ancestry reporting more than 5 million people signing up since 2012. Ancestry customers submit a saliva sample to Ancestry, which is then tested to determine things like ethnic heritage and family history.
While the desire to learn about the background of ourselves and our family is understandable, it is also fraught with concerns about where that DNA data goes and who ultimately ends up with it. "If you're concerned about people stealing your social security number off the internet, this is identity theft at the molecular level," says Peter Pitts, former associate commissioner with the Food and Drug Administration. He tells KTRH that there is a real threat your DNA info could fall into the wrong hands. "(Thieves) could blackmail you," he says. "They could say listen, we've seen your genetic data that you're predisposed to develop Alzheimer's Disease, how'd you like us to tell your employer about that?"
Ancestry insists it has stringent security protocols to prevent any such data leaks or hacks. But Pitts, who now runs the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, says it's not just the primary company you have to worry about. "The various companies--23 and Me, Ancestry and so forth--they are reselling your genetic information to pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions," he says. "While one company may have a fabulous security system that can't be hacked, the people they do business with may not be quite as robust, and there's a real danger of having information fall through the cracks."
Ancestry does allow customers to delete their accounts and have all of their info destroyed, but only if users specifically request such action through a complicated process. Pitts suggests making it less complicated. "Right at the bottom of the page where it says I ACCEPT the various terms and conditions, there should be another button that says 'Please Destroy My Genetic Information Once You've Sent Me My Report'---so that people have the option right there in front of them," he says.