'Anonymous' Online DNA Not So Anonymous
Surprised researchers raise privacy concerns
By Matt Cantor, Newser User
Posted Jan 18, 2013 3:17 AM CST
Online genetic data can point to entire families.   (Shutterstock)

(Newser) – If your genetic data, or even a relative's, has made its way online—albeit posted anonymously—it's simple for researchers to uncover your identity. So simple it surprised the researchers themselves. All they needed to suss out a person's name, and the names of members of that person's family tree, was DNA information, the person's age, and their home region. That just so happens to be the details that accompany the extensive amounts of genetic data that have been put in an NIH database for researchers' free use as part of the 1000 Genomes Project. "I've been worried about this for a long time," says one expert.

The New York Times recounts a researcher's experiment to track people down using the data. He compared patterns from a posted DNA string to those in a genealogical database. That gave him the subject's grandfathers' last names; from there, some quick Googling provided a family tree. "Oh my God, we really did this," the researcher said. He believes his team could track down the names of some 12% of middle-class and wealthy white males, the types who are likely to submit DNA data. Other experts, however, say there's no need to fret. "It is hard to imagine what would motivate anyone to undertake this sort of privacy attack in the real world," notes one. The NIH has since erased people's ages from its database.

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Showing 3 of 6 comments
HMD-SMD-ITY
Jan 19, 2013 9:49 PM CST
Or you could be like me and thousands of others who have had a government security clearance one time in their lives and submitted DNA samples when it became necessary. Not only that we also have fingerprint samples on record. So I couldn't start a life of crime if I wanted.
JoeQ
Jan 18, 2013 11:01 AM CST
It assumes the son got the biological father's surname. If true to form for the human race, what they should actually find is that 1 in 20 times, 1 in 20 generations, daddy was a cuckold.
WhateverYouSay
Jan 18, 2013 8:00 AM CST
I was approached to participate in this research... and declined. My instincts, inherited from my ancestors, told me the information would not be secure and could potentially come back to bite me on the ass, or at least try to sell me something ... as all "research" seems to do these days.