DNA testing: Risky Business?

By Noelle Adams

I have a confession. I work for a company that specializes in displaying DNA ethnicity and…I’ve never had my DNA tested. 

Shocking, I know.  Also highly problematic when writing about the subject! I mean how can I write with any authority about a process I hadn’t experienced for myself?

So thanks to the generosity of my boss, my entire family recently found ourselves tested and are currently waiting for the results (typically a 6-8 week wait BTW).  After we had our spit party (I kid you not, that is what those are called!) I started thinking about the highly personal nature of what we had so carelessly tossed in the mail.  This was the substance that made each person in our family an individual, what dictated our health and (some of) our mental processes (let’s be honest, some of our mental malfunctions are purely learned behavior… but that’s a subject for another article). There is no more personal or identifying piece of information than your DNA and we didn’t even slap a tracking code on it!

I’ll admit that this is one of those times that being a writer with a well-developed imagination doesn’t help the situation.  I had no problems thinking up all sorts of creative ways that our DNA could end up in the wrong hands (to the great amusement of my husband when he asked why I was looking at Russian language books online). 

Between worrying about our DNA being used to frame us for murder or being selected for off-the-books genetic experiments in Russia. My husband actually laughed until he cried when I told him that one, all while typing wildly on his cell phone. He’s so supportive. No really.  By the way, if you happen to see a Facebook post about some crazy lady who thinks she’s going to be kidnapped and experimented on by Cossacks because she took a DNA test, just ignore it. After ordering Speaking Russian for dummies on amazon, I questioned the process we had just undergone. How exactly is this highly personal information secured? What is done with it after testing? And what can I do to keep my family’s genetic information safe? 

So I called Ancestry.com to get some answers.

As it turns out, they’re pretty good at keeping your info safe. The first thing they told me was that my information was not connected to my name when they send it to their third party lab for testing. When I got the kit I registered the serial number to my Ancestry.com account and that is the only place where my name and my DNA are connected. All the lab gets is a tube of spit with a serial number attached to it and once the results are processed, what happens next is up to you.

With over 10,000 kits being processed daily, (eww! that is a ridiculous amount of spit!) there is a tremendous opportunity for genetic research as well as ongoing improvements to genetic ethnicity breakdowns. During the process of registration, you have the option of allowing your DNA results to (anonymously) contribute to future research. If you aren’t comfortable with that idea then you just click the opt-out button before continuing your registration.

Once finished, your DNA results are stored using the latest in computer encryption and other security measures (which they wouldn’t disclose to me for obvious reasons) and can only be accessed by you and Ancestry. 

Still worried? At this point I wasn’t anymore (of course that may have been partly due to the Xanax, but, information is good too!) – just as an FYI, you have the option of deleting your test from the website at any time and all DNA information, as well as the physical sample provided, is destroyed.

With all of the precautions in place to protect my information on Ancestry’s side I felt pretty confident that it wouldn’t be misused or mishandled, but what about my responsibility for my information’s safety?

I mean you have the obvious ones: Don’t share your Ancestry password with anyone (for most of us that’s a giant ‘DUH’ I know, but there’s always that one person…)! Take appropriate computer security precautions…you know, the basics. 

However, one other aspect to be aware of is the DNA match program that connects you to any living genetic relatives that may have taken an Ancestry DNA test.  This can be great if you’re looking to connect with family members (or not so great if you happen to find a relative you weren’t expecting. Seriously, there are so many stories of this happening! For one of them check out my article Family surprises from a DNA test) but it can also pose a slight information risk. Not to worry, just opt-out of the DNA match program at registration or you can do it from your account online if you allowed it at registration, but change your mind after.

Last but not least, Ancestry may collect your DNA information, but that doesn’t mean they own it. (That stuff is ALL yours!) So they give you the option to download your raw DNA file and share it with other sites. This option can be helpful if you’re a part of an ethnicity that isn’t broken down into regions very well like, for instance Asia (Update: Last year, Ancestry updated their Asian map from 5 ridiculously broad regions to more than double that number with far more precise results) There are websites located in other countries that have access to more data points for their region and so can pinpoint your ethnicity with greater accuracy.

However, once your DNA file leaves Ancestry’s servers, it’s up to you to keep it safe (Again, I know this is obvious, but that one person…). So make sure you REALLY trust the website you’re downloading your DNA results to, because while Russia is pretty… it’s also REALLY cold!

Have any of you taken your DNA results to another company? What was the difference? 

Let me know in the comments.

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