Genetic Genealogy – should you be scared of the data gathered?

If, like me, you have ordered one or more DNA tests through organisations such as 23andme, Ancestry or My Heritage, have you thought about who can access your data? Should you be frightened of who can use the data to identify you? Did you even realise that organisations such as the police are, in some countries, able to use the genomic data gathered by genealogy websites to track criminals?  

Apparently, this use of data by organisations such as the police is not yet happening in Australia, however, this article on the ABC News website looking at genetic genealogy and familial searches still makes for interesting reading. 

The article describes how police in California were able to trace a serial killer, rapist and burglar through a website which assists people to build their family tree. They did this by uploading the genome from DNA found at the crime scenes to a public genealogy database. On this database the police found some of the killer’s relatives and were able to construct a family tree, eventually discovering the killer’s identity. 

Imagine that! You go online and build your family tree, entering the information you have and the information you have been given after your DNA is tested and, if you happen to have a criminal in your family, they can be traced through your efforts. Is this such a bad thing? 

The ABC News piece links to another article in Science, which states that approximately “60% of the searches for individuals of European-descent will result in a third cousin or closer match, which can allow their identification using demographic identifiers.”  They are writing about people in USA with a European background, but I imagine it won’t be long before the same results apply to people in Australia. 

Naturally the fact that anyone could potentially find someone through their genomic data could be daunting, especially for people who value their privacy or for those who, for one reason or another, are in hiding or must protect themselves. However, my view is that, if you have nothing to hide and have committed no crime, you shouldn’t be worried. 

Finding out about one’s family, DNA testing, building family trees are all very popular pastimes. Many of us are curious about where we came from and who our ancestors were. Some of us are eager to discover long lost family members from all corners of the world.  

I love family history. I believe every family has an interesting history packed with fascinating stories. I don’t care if your ancestors were royalty or beggars, their stories are all compelling and just waiting to be discovered. 

If the path to discovering your family tree crosses with law enforcement trying to solve crimes, is it such a bad thing? Would the fact that you can be traced through your DNA stop you from doing the test or building your family tree online?

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