from the save-that-saliva-for-the-battlefield,-soldier! dept
Dozens of companies are offering off-the-shelf DNA tests that promise to do everything from settling paternity claims to letting you know what horrible disease is going to end your life. Other companies simply offer you a chance to connect with the roots and outer branches of your family tree by matching your DNA to the thousands of other people in their databases.
What’s not in the marketing pitches are the side effects of tying DNA markers to personally-identifiable info. Some companies are allowing law enforcement agencies to access entire databases with a single warrant. One company (Family Tree) has basically granted the FBI carte blanche access to its entire database.
Then there’s the private sector. Insurance companies and employers may be using DNA tests to deny coverage or raise rates on existing coverage if markers for genetic diseases are found. Nothing’s more personal than your DNA. When it’s tied to you with a bunch of third-party records, it can cause problems.
That’s the general message of a letter sent to US military members by the Department of Defense. Yahoo News obtained a copy of the DoD’s letter [PDF], which warns troops away from using consumer DNA products because of the risks they pose.
What the Pentagon has to say about DNA kits applies to everyone, not just members of the military.
These DTC [direct-to-consumer] genetic tests are largely unregulated and could expose personal and genetic information, and potentially create unintended security consequences and increased risk to the joint force and mission…
Moreover, there is increased concern in the scientific community that outside parties are exploiting the use of genetic data for questionable purposes, including mass surveillance and the ability to track individuals without their authorization or awareness.
The memo also explains many of those offered have not received FDA approval, which means claims made by the DNA companies have not been verified. If the company’s product doesn’t work as well as advertised, the serviceperson could end up receiving inaccurate statements about health issues (or offspring, apparently).
While it’s not exactly clear how DNA info stored in a database can result in new security risks, there’s something to be said about the negative effects it could have on a serviceperson’s career. A statement given to the Military Times by Pentagon spokesman Sean Robertson says the “unintentional discovery” of markers indicating potential future health risks could negatively affect readiness and, consequently, the soldier’s career. Soldiers are required to disclose any medial issues that might affect readiness and a bad test could result in an erroneous disclosure that takes them off the battlefield, or puts them out of a job. Robertson says this sort of information is best obtained through a healthcare professional, rather than a third party service that hoovers up DNA and PII en masse.
Mass surveillance may not actually be an issue, but the potential for being swept up in a police investigation obviously poses a risk to military members — especially those engaged in sensitive operations and whose involvement could be exposed during the course of an investigation. The increasing use of DNA databases as investigational tools increases the chances of innocent people being viewed as suspects just because their DNA bears some similarity to the sample investigators are working with.
If there are security risks beyond what’s covered in the letter, the Pentagon isn’t willing to discuss them. But there are enough problems with the way this sensitive data is handled by a number of companies that the best bet for most people is to steer clear of those that aren’t transparent about who the data is shared with or sold to.