DNA records pose new privacy risks

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An article in the Boston Globe highlights the ease with which DNA records can be re-identified. According to the article, “Scientists at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research showed how easily this sensitive health information could be ­revealed and possibly fall into the wrong hands. Identifying the supposedly anonymous research participants did not require fancy tools or expensive equipment: It took a single researcher with an Internet connection about three to seven hours per person.” Even truly anonymous data was not entirely safe from being re-identified. Yaniv Erlich”…decided to extend the technique to see if it would work with truly anonymous ­data. He began with 10 unidentified men whose DNA ­sequences had been analyzed and posted online as part of the federally funded 1,000 Genomes Project. The men were also part of a separate scientific study in which their family members had provided genetic samples. The samples and the donors’ relationships to one ­another were listed on a website and publicly available from a tissue repository.”

These findings are incredibly relevant because it is highly possible that “something a single researcher did in three to seven hours could easily be automated and used by companies or insurers to make predictions about a person’s risk for disease. ­Although the federal Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act protects DNA from ­being used by health insurers and employers to discriminate against people”.

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