How Your Genetic Data Can Be Exploited

First Posted: Mar 23, 2019 05:13 PM EDT

DNA testing is more popular now than ever before, with millions of people having recently been exposed to advertisement campaigns pledging to unveil their "true" ancestry. What very few people realize, however, is the fact that genetic data can be exploited by nefarious companies who are less than transparent when it comes to their marketing efforts. Learning more about your ancestral history can be alluring, but many companies which pledge to unveil the secrets of your genetic past are really just looking to make a buck off you.

Here's how your genetic data can be exploited, and why interest groups around the world are growing increasingly paranoid about the rise in DNA testing.

Peering into the past

The biggest reason that genetic data has gained a newfound prominence over the past few years is that a host of companies has sprung up to cater to customers who have questions about their ancestry. By peering into the past and telling you a little bit about your genetic makeup, this companies intend to make a quick buck off the identities of their customers. While many view this as a fascinating trend that can deeply connect them with their pasts, it's really a more sinister way of vacuuming up people's personal information in an effort to make a profit.

The rise of the digital era has rendered most people familiar with the concept of having your data harvested by someone else without your consent. What too few understand is that genetic testing companies are essentially the same thing, except they prey upon your personal genetic information rather than your digital browsing history. Veritas Genetics, 23andMe, and a number of other large companies have nonetheless become immensely popular over the past few months and continue to enlarge their audience to this day.

There are big risks associated with sharing your DNA with consumer genetic-testing companies, however. By far the biggest risk is that many of these companies have a lackluster commitment to digital security and are essentially sitting around waiting to get hacked by outsiders. You may think your genetic information is in good hands, but in reality, you're gambling every time you send in a new swab. Furthermore, companies are only seeking to test consumer genetic information because they understand they can sell that data for an immense profit.

Personalized products from DNA

The biggest reason consumer genetic-testing companies have appeared in droves lately is that this is a burgeoning industry that's only going to grow larger as time goes on. Already, companies like Helix are pioneering a market which will be rife with products and services tailored to your specific genetics. While some companies are focused on selling your information to pharmaceutical companies who may use it to develop new drugs, other firms like Helix are more interested in harvesting your DNA for more ambitious projects.

Helix pledges that it will be able to use DNA to derive insights into consumer personality traits and lifestyle choices, for instance, something that marketing professionals would love to get their hands on. Specialized medical supplements or custom workout equipment could also soon emerge, with customers being advised to purchase a certain product or service on the basis of their genetic history.

Despite the profitable potential of the burgeoning DNA industry, though, a number of security and privacy concerns that lead many to fear a dark future insofar as genetic data is concerned. One firm notes that excessively careless or reckless actions can lead to significant liabilities. DNA testing services like MyHeritage have already suffered from terrifying data breaches, for instance, including one that saw hackers breach into a whopping 92 million accounts. There are plenty of reasons to view DNA breaches as being worse than a credit card breach, and many consumers in the future will soon become familiar with the chilling sensation of having your genetic information stolen.

History offers a warning

Finally, we can know for sure that modern genetic data can be exploited for nefarious purposes precisely because it's been done so often in the past. History is chock full of chilling examples that demonstrate we should be cautious when it comes to collecting and analyzing the DNA of millions of people. Just ask Native Americans, a minority group that's been subject to brutal extermination efforts and genetic experimentation in the past. Native Americans have accurately come to fear the potential exploitation of their genetic information because they've suffered from such a terrible fate in the recent-past, oftentimes at the hands of the U.S. government.

We can hope and work to ensure that genetic information is never used in such an abhorrent way ever again, but it's indisputable that modern companies are already looking for new, modern ways to make use of your DNA. Whether it's to oppress certain populations or simply make a quick buck, your genetic data can be exploited, and we should all be cautious about who we allow to access our ancestral pasts.

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