23andDeceit: The sinister reality of commercial genetic testing

Max Marcello | Staff Writer

Davy Crockett coonskin caps, Pet Rocks and the Snuggie — all examples of trends which serve as ambassadors to an era in which they dominated popular culture.

In contrast to these trends of the past, today’s trends cycle through more rapidly, mirroring the swift pace of modern life. However, there is a particular trend whose decline I observe with anticipatory satisfaction: the waning popularity of genetic ancestry testing.

Marketed as convenient and foolproof, these kits offered a simple method to decode one’s ethnic and national heritage from half a teaspoon of saliva. This approach initially resonated well, tapping into the long-standing American fascination with genealogy.

These kits were heralded as a significantly more convenient way of doing genealogy. Yet as time passed, the sinister nature of these kits became unignorable and showcased our generation’s ignorance and careless attitudes around privacy.

No force was more vocal or prominent in popularizing these tests than 23andMe. Founded in 2006 the company quickly rose to prominence as a trailblazer in the multibillion dollar industry. With Silicon Valley insiders at the helm, 23andMe marketed its own innovations that reduced the cost for genetic testing. What followed was the eventual normalization and celebration of these tests in our popular culture.

It became increasingly common for individuals to explore their ancestry through these tests, often leading to a newfound identification with cultures based solely on shared genetic markers, despite having no active participation in those cultures.

At the height of the craze, skeptics were often perceived as out of touch. The notion of entrusting genetic material to a corporation, with minimal control over its future use, was profoundly disturbing.

However, this apprehension was largely overlooked by the greater public, especially as established genealogy companies began to introduce their own genetic testing services. The degree of intrusion these tests represent is difficult to fathom. DNA, being the fundamental component that differentiates each individual, is unique in that it cannot be altered or overwritten like your Google Search history. Unlike other forms of data, DNA is immutable and perpetual, an aspect that heightens the significance and potential consequences of its mishandling.

It was through DNA samples collected by a combination of family members and private companies that police in California were able to close one of the most enduring cold cases in the state’s history; that of the Golden State Killer. The trial set a precedent that effectively proved law enforcement’s capabilities to accurately anatomize our genetic profile from relatives and family members.

If a blood relative has undergone commercial genetic testing, it’s highly likely that a considerable portion of your own DNA is now indirectly in the possession of these companies. Law enforcement are increasingly considering the use of commercial genetic databases as a supplement to their existing Combined DNA Index System, which would house genetic profiles of citizens, including those without any criminal background.

In addition to government agencies, cyber criminals are also targeting your genetic data. 23andMe recently announced a major security breach. Hackers reportedly targeted profiles of Ashkenazi Jewish and Chinese descent, highlighting the specific and potentially discriminatory nature of such intrusions into personal genetic information. All of these developments have led to 23andMe experiencing a historic decline in its valuation, an indication that the enthusiasm for genetic testing has significantly waned.

This downturn signifies a growing public awareness of the insufficient regulatory and ethical frameworks safeguarding this sensitive data, prompting a widespread retreat from these services.

Concurrently, lawsuits against the company in regard to the significant breach are going forward. Make no mistake, this is a cause for celebration, but it’ll be tough to get the genie back in the bottle

Millions of DNA samples remain stored in the databases of these companies, and the specifics of how this information is being used or handled remain shrouded in mysteries. Given the risks, it becomes imperative for the public to advocate for extensive data privacy reforms, particularly concerning genetic information.

While mass surveillance of digital activities can, at times, be rationalized by national security concerns, the collection of genetic data lacks a similar justification. There is no justifiable rationale for any government or private entity to collect and retain genetic information from law-abiding citizens without revealing malevolent intentions.

It is not — nor should it be a crime to want to have your genetic information kept private from the FBI and unknown third parties. As these genetic testing companies face potential collapse, it is crucial that we allow them to do so.

It would be morally irresponsible and against public interest to support or attempt to revive the popularity of these tests. Much like shoulder pads or the cinnamon challenge, the era of commercial genetic testing must be allowed to die and remain that way for the foreseeable future.