The Truth Behind DNA Ancestry Kits, Part 2: They Can’t Guarantee Privacy

two clear glass test tubes
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In Part 1 of this mini-series on DNA testing, we’ve examined some reason behind the fear instilled into consumers by certain websites that attempt to discourage DNA ancestry testing. One reason to discourage ancestry DNA testing concerns the fact that there’s experimentation involved with DNA testing. In discovering certain things about yourself through DNA, it appears as though the science isn’t set in stone. Science can’t identify all the health risks you may have, and DNA results tend to “skew European,” as the Quartz article says. The argument the article makes is to avoid giving up your DNA for these reasons.

And yet, there’s one more reason the Quartz article cites to dissuade everyday buyers from investing in and completing their DNA ancestry kits: they can’t guarantee privacy.

DNA ancestry companies can’t guarantee privacy

“There’s also the glaring question of what happens to your genetic data after you give it up to tech giants to be analyzed…there aren’t laws that can truly prevent companies from sharing your genetic data. This means that companies can sell your data to legitimate research companies (although they do so with your consent), and they can be legally compelled to share your data with law enforcement through a subpoena,” the Quartz article says in a section titled “The privacy is sketchy.”

In other words, companies can make or break promises at whim. They can promise to protect your DNA and maintain your privacy, but they don’t have to. “They can even sell your DNA to other companies if they want to,” the article appears to say, “thus violating your privacy. And the worst part is, you could be signing away your privacy and not know it.”

And yet, if DNA ancestry companies are to be feared because they have access to our DNA, then hospitals, coffee shops, dentists’ offices, and med clinics should be feared as well because they too have access to our DNA.

Think about it: If you go to a coffee shop (say, Starbucks), and have your favorite coffee drink, but get up and leave your coffee cup on the table, a policeman can walk right in, pick it up, and take it back to police headquarters without your consent. “I didn’t tell that policeman to grab the coffee cup on the table,” you’d say. But ahhhh, you gave permission by leaving the cup at the Starbucks, on the table. Even if you’d thrown the cup into the trash can, the police would still have a right to take it because, by leaving your DNA in a public place, law enforcement can obtain it without a warrant. The same can be said for you eating with restaurant utensils (fork, spoon, knife, glass, etc.).

The same can be said for trips to the medical clinics and doctor’s offices for lab work, tests, and bloodwork. If you go and give blood to the downstairs lab, what happens to that blood after you give it? If you don’t know, don’t be surprised; it’s likely the case that 99% of all humans don’t know what happens to their blood after they give it at the doctor’s office or med clinic. What happens to it, though, is anyone’s guess, really. But did you sign away your rights to your blood when you let the nurse take it from your arm?

What about a urine sample? If the doctor must assess your urine to determine if you have a kidney infection or analyze your stool to determine if you have colon cancer, do you consent to your DNA going to other places outside the hospital once you present the nurse/doctor with a sample? You don’t willingly consent, but somewhere along the way, you don’t know what happens to your urine and stool sample, either, do you?

When you go to the mall and spit out your chewing gum on the sidewalk or grass, you’re leaving DNA. If a policeman walked by and wanted to assess the DNA at the scene, he wouldn’t need a warrant to grab your chewing gum out the grass or off the sidewalk. Once he analyzes the saliva on the chewing gum, it’s going to point to you as having been present at the mall. If you cough up mucus and spit on the grass or pavement, the policeman would have access to that. If you spit in a plastic container and throw it in a nearby trashcan, the police would have free access to your saliva and thus, your DNA, without any need for paperwork or documentation. Public accessibility makes it available, regardless of privacy.

DNA you leave in public places, even in the local garbage, is called “abandoned DNA.” Even strands of hair from your hairbrush, left in a garbage bin, can be taken and analyzed without your consent.

I was stunned a few nights ago to watch an episode of Crime Scene Investigation (what many know as simply CSI) and discover that the beginning of an episode showed the crime lab unit taking human blood and actually using it for experimentation.

In Season 2 episode 15 of CSI, titled “Burden Of Proof,” one investigator goes to get his lunch out of the mini-fridge in the office. “What is that smell?” he asks, wondering about the origin of the foul odor coming out of the mini-fridge that’s all over his sandwich. As one of the female investigators looks around in the fridge, she sees a small container of blood and shows the complaining investigator the container. “Yeah, he’s got one of his experiments in there,” she says. Another female investigator asks, “Bugs or blood?”, and then the male investigator with a foul lunch says, “Someone has got to talk to Grissom about this.” At that point, Grissom, the lead investigator and the boss of everyone in the room, walks in. The grouchy man with the foul lunch approaches Grissom about leaving his blood specimen in the refrigerator and Grissom replies, “I’m going to test for horizontal motion on bloodstains vis-a-vis surface textures. Hey, any of you guys got any linoleum at home?” “That blood is rank, man,” the investigator with the foul lunch says. “That’s why the Red Cross gives it to us, ’cause it’s past its expiration date.”

I repeat Grissom’s words: “That’s why the Red Cross gives it to us, ’cause it’s past its expiration date.” In other words, when blood expires, the American Red Cross, a national source of blood donation, passes the donated blood down to crime scene investigators to aid in their crimes research. I looked up the American Red Cross (ARC) to see how long the organization stores blood. The site says that the ARC stores blood up to 42 days. What happens after that, the website itself doesn’t say. And yet, if CSI is reporting that blood goes to crime scene investigations research, then it must be true. CSI wouldn’t report a known inaccuracy; after all, it is a crime show that many an investigator watches, right?

The glaring omission the ARC makes on its website is that it doesn’t tell you what it does with your blood after it expires. In some cases, blood samples are destroyed, but perhaps the blood is used for other purposes the ARC doesn’t want to be specific about. In other words, after you donate blood and it sits for 42 days, it is then discarded. It may never go to someone because someone may not need it, and once you donate and it sits, it is “discarded.” Where, exactly, is it discarded at? Is it passed to another entity? Passed on for further research? Destroyed by ARC? Or does ARC give it to another entity? CSI seems to give a little insight as to what happens to it because the ARC’s website isn’t clear about this part of the journey at all.

So, if we can distrust DNA ancestry companies and DNA ancestry kits and what happens to our DNA after the fact, shouldn’t we be as wary about donating blood to organizations like the American Red Cross — even if they tell us they’re giving it to “save a life”?

Conclusion

It’s been said that DNA ancestry companies take our DNA and can potentially do with it as they please, and so that means that because they potentially could do anything, we shouldn’t trust them. And yet, the same can be said for hospitals, med clinics, even blood donation organizations like the American Red Cross. I’m not discouraging anyone from donating blood, but what I’m arguing is that, theoretically, since the ARC doesn’t tell us what they do with our blood once we give it, couldn’t they potentially sell or share our DNA with other companies for a price? Couldn’t the local hospital and med clinic? Local Starbucks or coffee shop or restaurant?

This line of thinking is logical, but it’s also paranoid to assume that everyone’s out to get your DNA and sell it for profit. And yet, that’s what the Quartz article wants us to think: that our rights are being taken away and our privacy encroached upon. If you spit in a sink or on grass or a sidewalk, or pea in a public restroom stall or urinal, you’re giving away DNA that can be analyzed by anyone for any reason whatsoever. There’s no telling where your DNA is going in those circumstances, either, but yet and still, that doesn’t stop you from drinking coffee at the local coffee shop, does it? That doesn’t stop you from giving blood so that your health status can be analyzed, does it?

If you give blood, saliva, and urine for medical and health reasons, why not give DNA for reasons of discovering your biological kin? Is discovering your family, not a sufficient cause to do a DNA ancestry kit?