Photo: Oxford Nanopore
A new study in the journal Science today shows just how easy it is to link anonymous genetic data to an actual person. By using publicly available databases and resources, the researchers were able to identify the donors of anonymous genetic sequences.”The main message of this study is you cannot guarantee privacy in genomics,” study researcher Yaniv Erlich, of the Whitehead Institute, told the Toronto Star. “You can recover the identity of anonymous genetic data sets in some cases.”
The researchers used publicly available genetic data from the 1000 Genomes Project. They analysed a short stretch of the Y chromosome (only found in males) for markers that are passed from father to son.
Starting with named genetic data from genealogical-search information (databases used by companies to find long-lost relatives) the researchers identified 50 of the anonymous genomes, because one of their relatives had submitted their name and genome to a genetic genealogy database. Using the last name, and the age and location data associated with the anonymous genomes, the researchers could search the Web to find that person.
The authors warn that we shouldn’t be alarmed, but others don’t agree.
“If someone did identify that that’s your genome, one could argue ‘so what? What does that mean, what are the risks of someone identifying it?'” Kerry Bowman, who didn’t work on the study team, told The Toronto Star. “The problem is the answer to that is ‘we don’t really know yet’… once your genome is out there, it’s almost impossible to pull anything back that’s been online completely.”
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