Why you can't hide from genetic detectives

family dna
Individuals' identities can now be tracked down via a DNA sample submitted by a distant relative.

For anyone interested in where the genetics revolution is heading, I found this article in the San Jose Mercury News intriguing because it shows the culture is not aware of the pace of technological change.

A new study shows 60 percent of white Americans could be discovered through a relative who uploaded his or her genetic profile to a consumer DNA database. From the article:

It’s suddenly harder to be that stranger in the crowd.

As interest in DNA genealogy databases soars, a new study shows that an estimated 60 percent of white Americans can be identified through one of their relatives.

Just months ago, the needle-in-the-haystack search that nabbed a suspect in the Golden State Killer case — finding Joseph James DeAngelo through the vast genetic family tree of a very distant cousin — seemed like remarkable science fiction.

But using DNA to successfully find killers — or far-flung family members — “is not a fluke. It’s not winning a lottery ticket,” said the study’s senior author, Yaniv Erlich, a computer scientist at Columbia University and My Heritage, a major Israel-based genealogy and DNA testing company. “This is a very strong technique.”

His team urges companies to create policies, such as encryption, to prevent intimate digital data from being passed around in ways we never intended.

With the meteoric rise in popularity of direct-to-consumer genetic testing, scientists speculated that almost all of us will soon have a distant relative who has provided DNA to one company or another — and this approach could identify many people.

But no one had calculated just how many. Erlich and his collaborators at Columbia University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem conclude that once a genetic database covers roughly 2 percent of a population, nearly any person could be matched to at least a “third cousin” level. ...

We still need to come to grips with the implications of what this means for family genealogy, personal privacy and next-generation law enforcement.

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