DNA websites cast broad net for identifying people

Leslie Hanson
October 14, 2018

But the fact that it has become doable will force all of us to rethink the meaning of privacy in the DNA age, experts said.

About 60 percent of the US population with European heritage may be identifiable from their DNA by searching consumer websites, even if they've never made their own genetic information available, a study estimates.

Rosenberg hopes his study "will help catalyze a conversation among many different stakeholders in forensic genetics, genetic privacy and ancestry testing".

Dave Curtis, who is an honorary professor at UCL's Genetics Institute and the Centre of Psychiatry at Queen Mary University of London, said: "This could be easily done in the United Kingdom, it's very doable, all it takes is for people to make a genetic profile on these databases and agree to be contacted by people who match with them".

This new reality represents the convergence of two long-standing trends.

One of them is the rise of direct-to-consumer genetic testing. Others include AncestryDNA and 23andMe. All you have to do is provide a sample of saliva and drop it in the mail.

The other essential element is the proliferation of publicly searchable genealogy databases like GEDmatch.

Each person in a DNA database acts "as a beacon that illuminates hundreds of distant relatives", said Erlich, who is also chief scientific officer of the MyHeritage website.

Erlich and his collaborators uploaded her genetic code to GEDmatch and ran a search to see if she had any relations on the site. This turned up two relatives whose distant relatives - a couple - were found in genealogical records.

They had 10 children, so that was no mean feat.


Then they started culling their massive list of descendants. Eventually, that can point to someone whose DNA is then found to match the original sample.

When police find a DNA sample that does not match anyone in their database, a criminal investigation can come to a dead end. Though the odds of success would be lower for people from other backgrounds, it would still be expected to work for more than half of all Americans, they said.

Yaniv Erlich, Tal Shor, Itsik Pe'er, and Shai Carmi, who are affiliated with online genealogy platform MyHeritage, as well as Columbia University, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the New York Genome Center, last Thursday published a report in Science Magazine (Identity inference of genomic data using long-range familial searches) suggesting that as DNA databases continue to grow, investigators will be able to identify anyone in the United States given a sample of their DNA. They then looked for relatives more distant than first cousins elsewhere in the database. They found that 60 percent of their searches returned a match - majority were a third cousin or closer.

These so-called "long-range familial searches" can find second or third cousins.

The findings were published Thursday in the journal Science.

By eliminating possible relatives by sex, age or residence, they landed on Joseph James DeAngelo, whose DNA they discreetly obtained from a auto door handle and his trash.

Earlier this year, California police charged a retired cop in a series of grisly rapes and murders that took place during the 1970s and '80s. One DNA sequencing company has already positioned itself as a liaison between the forensic sector and the consumer sector, uploading 100 "cold cases" to consumer genetic databases. For example in the case of the "Golden State Killer", the police nabbed the killer - a former police officer Joseph DeAngelo. This, the study says, has huge implications if people and companies continue making DNA public. That's limited enough that police could zero in with further investigation, Erlich said.

From April to August, the use of the technique has exploded. Or protesters and activists being pursued in this way.

Erlich and his co-authors proposed a mitigation strategy that would make it harder to upload an unknown DNA sequence to a genealogical database and search for a match. This would ensure that people could conduct searches related only to their own DNA.

Other reports by Iphone Fresh

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