Genetic Sequencing and Your Privacy: Should You Be Worried?

Photo Credit: Max Pixel

Genetic sequencing was used to catch the Golden State Killer in a way that it never has been before. And because of the phenomenal result the privacy implications of what was done has been largely overlooked (to check out how police used genetic sequencing to track down the killer click here)

To be clear, getting a serial rapist and murderer off the streets is a fucking phenomenal result. But it shouldn’t be used to justify the ethical quandary of the methods that they used.

So, what did they do exactly? They used publicly available genetic information on millions of individuals to track down the identity of the killer without having the genetic information of the killer himself. Instead, they found the genetic data from the killer’s relatives and were able to utilize that data to determine who the killer was.

Where does the potential ethical dilemma arise? It’s with what else that publicly available data can be used for. As an example, your genetic information can be used to tell if you are more susceptible to certain diseases or health conditions.

The problem isn’t that the police used this information to track down the killer, they’d be foolish to not utilize the databases that are available to them. The problem is that ANYONE can access many of these databases.

Think about if a potential employer had this data. Two applicants, one who is more susceptible to develop cancer than the other. Which do you hire? The individual that is more likely to get sick, miss time from work, and raise your company’s health insurance costs, or the individual that is more likely to stay healthy?

Of course, using this data to determine who you are going to hire is illegal. Just like it’s illegal to pay a woman less than a man for the same day’s work. You see how well that’s going.

The obvious solution is not to put your data out there, that way you are protected right? Wrong. The problem is that even if you protect your data what the police investigating the Golden State Killer proved is that your data is extremely similar to your relatives’ genetic data.

But we already knew this, that’s why brothers often look so similar. So, do you have a family member in the military? A convicted felon? Register for a program like GEDmatch? If so your information is already compromised.