Genetic profiling has been a cornerstone of forensic science for decades, where criminal suspects’ profiles are compared to DNA evidence to assess the likelihood of their involvement in a crime. When a suspect’s DNA is sent to a crime lab, the investigators search for variable number tandem repeats, which are highly variable repetitive sequences that are similar between closely related individuals, but unique when compared to anyone else. While those sequences become irrefutably damning when compared against DNA profiles in existing criminal databases, if the suspect’s DNA isn’t already in the database, investigators won’t find a match, and the case will go cold.
Companies like Ancestry and 23andMe don’t have that problem. The two have cultivated databases that profile over 12 million people, with that number growing by nearly one million each month (Regalado, Antonio). It’s reaching the point where nearly everyone in the US will have a close relative who has given a DNA sample up to these databases; and because an individual’s DNA is connected to their relatives, it becomes astonishingly simple to track down and identify people who haven’t submitted their DNA to the database, and thus have not consented to their information being shared publicly. Because these companies are not medical providers, they don’t have to abide by standard privacy policies that must be followed by doctors, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
Websites like GEDMatch, a genomics database that allows users to upload their DNA test data from commercial DNA companies, operate under even looser constraints. Where 23andMe and Ancestry don’t allow law enforcement to access their customer databases without a court order, GEDMatch’s database is essentially open-source, allowing authorities to freely mine it to track down suspects (Scutti, Susan). While this has solved over 28 cold murder and rape cases in 2018 alone, the most prominent case being California’s Golden State Killer, it’s still a large legal and privacy concern.
Genealogy services have become the ultimate data mine for third parties such as law enforcement, pharmaceutical companies, and health insurance. There’s a wealth of sensitive information encoded in our genetic data, which must be protected in order to prevent genetic discrimination from these institutions. While the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act prevents employers and health insurance companies from requesting genetic test results and discriminating based upon them, it does not cover schools, mortgage lending, or housing, and it fails to protect against discrimination in forms of insurance such as life, disability, and long-term care (Curtis, C et al). Furthermore, these genetic databases are not immune to security breaches by hackers and foreign governments. When companies or individuals have access to our genetic data, be it through legal or illegal means, it turns us into commodities that can be used to manipulate or incriminate us, and gives surveillance capitalists more power to negatively impact our futures with impunity.