Over the last few years, personal genetic testing platforms have really taken off. The allure of sending off saliva in a tube to gain information on your ancestry has proven to be incredibly powerful. In fact, more people took personal genetic ancestry tests in 2017 than they did in all previous years combined, doubling the number of test-takers from 2016 and exceeding 12 million in total. Evidence suggests that approximately one in every 25 American adults now has access to personal genetic data, cementing that companies providing these services probably aren’t going anywhere for a while. But even if it’s tempting to find out your genetic makeup with just a simple swab, the question is: should you?
DNA testing sites like Ancestry.com, 23andMe, and others have made a lot of headlines lately — and not just because more people are taking advantage of their services than ever. Ancestry was recently sued by 23andMe over alleged patent infringement and false advertising. While Ancestry claims to have double the number of DNA testing customers compared to 23andMe, the latter claimed that Ancestry infringed on U.S. patent No. 8,463,554, “Finding relatives in a database,” which outlines a method of analyzing certain genome regions to determine how closely related two individuals are.
In 2016, the USPTO issued 303,051 patents. But 23andMe says that Ancestry’s infringement dates back to at least 2013. The particular method in question uses an “identical by descent” tool to compare longer genome sections to determine how closely two people are related, rather than relying on mitochondrial DNA or Y-chromosome DNA. 23andMe claims that their method is a more specific, more accurate technique that is protected by their patent; the fact that Ancestry uses this same method to identify genetic relationships, they’re infringing on that protection.
That’s not the only issue 23andMe has with Ancestry. The former has also accused the latter of misleading advertising. AncestryDNA “boldly proclaimed” in an online advertisement that their platform has tested five times more regions than other DNA tests and provides five times more detail than other genetic testing available on the market. In the fine print of the advertising, Ancestry revealed that it has tested two times more regions than 23andMe — but no such disclaimers are provided in other ads. The facts being used are misleading, attests 23andMe, and spreads false information to the general public. 23andMe has demanded an injunction that would force Ancestry to stop infringing on their patent; they’ve also requested that Ancestry release a statement correcting those supposed misrepresentations and technological comparisons. 23andMe also has a problem with Ancestry’s name trademark, as they feel the word “ancestry” is too generic to be protected.
But these complaints aren’t the only ones being made about genetic testing platforms. When the Golden State Killer was recently apprehended — much to the delight of armchair detectives everywhere — not everyone was jumping for joy. While suspect Joseph DeAngelo’s arrest produced a big sigh of relief for police officers — of whom there are 737,263 in the workforce across the country — and crime enthusiasts, the way in which he was caught does have some implications for privacy. Investigators were only able to establish DeAngelo as a firm suspect after searching through the family tree of a genetic test customer in an attempt to locate possible suspects. Close genetic matches have the potential to put a criminal behind bars or charge an innocent individual with a crime they didn’t commit.
The FTC actually issued a warning several months ago that DNA testing kits could infringe on their right to privacy. In a statement, they warned: “The data can be very enlightening personally, but a major concern for consumers should be who else could have access to information about your heritage and your health. If you’re thinking about buying an at-home DNA test kit, you owe it to yourself — and to family members who could be affected — to investigate the options thoroughly.”
Both Ancestry and 23andMe have said they would not freely hand over DNA information to authorities without the proper processes being followed, but criminal charges aren’t actually the only privacy concern here. There are those pursue genetic testing to learn information about their own health. Since one in eight women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime, some people want to find out their genetic predisposition early to seek out preventative care or even undergo surgery prior to a diagnosis. Some companies, which are not regulated by the FDA, claim to analyze “raw” DNA data in order to provide consumers with in-depth health information. But this information may be misleading or totally inaccurate, leading to unnecessary panic. One recent article found that even the clinical testing labs on which medical providers rely may not be providing correct information: scientists reported that 40% of results analyzed from raw DNA interpretation were incorrect, meaning that four out of 10 people were falsely informed that they’re at increased risk for certain diseases.
So while testing your DNA and getting a glimpse of the past may sound like an exciting prospect, it’s essential to consider the source and the possible ramifications. Knowing one’s ethnic background is immensely important to some, but to others, the privacy risk may not be worth it.