The hottest gift this holiday season was not Tickle Me Elmo or a new cell phone; it was a DNA test kit. By spitting in a test tube or swabbing the inside of a cheek, gift recipients can find out their ancestry in four to six weeks, finally proving that their like of Italian food is more than just an affinity for good marinara.
The gift is often met with excitement. When the DNA results show up in the mail or by email, a wealth of information is revealed. It may reinforce stories that your grandmother told you, or help you discover new branches of your family that you never knew existed.
A connection to the past may bring comfort to some people knowing they are part of a bigger world. It can be the start of a family ancestry project connecting the dots that were previously unknown, enlarging the family into a large welcoming circle.
Presentation sophomore Amanda Page, was very excited to find out that she was 19% Native American from an Ancestry DNA test.
In countless funny stories, people reveal that they have spent their whole lives believing they were British or Irish only to find out their family came from Germany. There may be some embarrassment at having to come to terms with the data, realizing that “All Hail the Queen” now sounds silly coming out of your mouth.
Presentation senior Gabby Smullen, who used 23andMe, said “I found out that I am part Sardinian and I didn’t even know Sardinia was a place.”
However, there is a dark side emerging to the DNA test kits. For some, the DNA results have proved to be troubling. You may discover that you have a sibling that you never knew about, revealing family secrets that should have stayed secrets. You may find out that you are related to a known criminal or a historical figure that you dislike.
In addition, by making your DNA results public, you are exposing your information to databases and people who may misuse the information. In a recent example of DNA sleuthing, law enforcement was able to discover the identity of the Golden State Killer, unknown since his reign of terror began in 1974. It was a lucky break for law enforcement, but a bad break for Joseph DeAngelo.
His DNA was traced to a distant relative on GEDmatch, which allowed authorities to back into his identity. GEDmatch is an open source genetic database used by amateur and professional genealogists by entering data received from DNA test kit providers Ancestry and 23andMe.
It is important for buyers to understand that their DNA information may not be kept private. You are giving away your full genetic code in that test tube of spit, or cotton swab of saliva, and it is questionable about whom, if anyone, that information should be given to.
Ancestry professes that it does not sell your data or give it away to third parties without your consent. However, it would be very difficult to prove if your information was indeed distributed for other purposes such as disease marking. Someday you may discover that you were denied health care coverage because you have the genetic marking for an expensive disease. The fun DNA test kit you got as a holiday gift years ago may come back to haunt you in the worst way.
For all the naysayers, there are those who believe volunteer DNA collection is valuable. Providing DNA information for research can aid in the identification and cure of certain diseases, such as diabetes, and some people are more than willing to help. Finding a company that can validate that it separates your specific name from the DNA information used for research may be the best compromise.
Law enforcement’s use of DNA ancestry data has the public on edge, and both 23andMe and Ancestry are working to assure customers that their data is secure. However, the popular 2017 holiday gift may not be at the top of everyone’s list this year. It’s safer to listen to grandma’s stories of your relatives in the old country and believe you are related to the Queen. At least no one could tell you any differently.