Popular holiday gift can reveal problems in addition to ancestry

World Today

DNA testing kits are a hot holiday gift. Between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, AncestryDNA says it sold about one-and-a-half million of them.

That’s three-times what they sold over the same period last year. But – in addition to ancestry – the tests can also reveal genetic problems.

CGTN’s Karina Huber reports on the dilemma this can pose for customers.

For under a hundred dollars, a genetics testing company can tell you where your ancestors likely originated. It can also link you with potential relatives who share similar DNA.

History buff Luke Vander Linden was sold right away and signed up with competitor Ancestry.com.

“When I was a kid, I met a great, great aunt who had a photocopy of a mimeograph of a typed out verbal letter that claimed that we are descended from President John Adams,” he said. “I have yet to verify that, but back then, it was very hard to do genealogy. You had to mail birth certificates and go to libraries and stuff. Now it’s easy.”

Ease of use and affordability have helped make DNA testing kits very popular – millions have signed up for them. There are even genetic kits for dogs.

Vander Linden met his fifth cousin thanks to the test. They share fourth great grandparents. She lives in the state of Wisconsin.

“I’m slowly getting to meet these folks all around the country who I’m fifth cousins, third cousins, eighth cousins with, and it’s kind of interesting just to see,” he said. “We have this shared genealogical ancestry but our lives have turned out to be very different.”

Carolyn Neuhaus is a bioethicist at The Hastings Center Bioethics Research Institute. She says consumer DNA testing kits can be a lot of fun, but there are risks. Companies can sell your DNA to third parties with your consent. Even if you don’t consent, the data is at risk of being hacked.

“It’s aggregated and anonymized and that’s supposed to be enough of a protection and in most cases it is,” said Neuhaus. “But if someone really wanted to re-identify you, even with that really metadata information, they probably could.”

And what could be done with that information is the worry.

In 2008 the U.S. Congress signed a law that protects against using DNA to discriminate in the areas of employment and health insurance.

But it doesn’t include long-term care and disability insurance. Nevertheless, Vander Linden isn’t concerned.

“I don’t think anybody is really interested in me and my data personally,” said Vander Linden. “I do think laws will have to adapt, but having information out there both as an individual and as a group for society, I think it’s probably a net positive.”

Neuhaus agrees but says consumers should read the fine print before spitting into a vial.