Tuesday, August 6, 2019

DNA testing can share all your family secrets. Are you ready for that?

DNA testing is all about unlocking secrets. But sometimes surrendering your saliva may also mean surrendering a bit of privacy – yours or someone else's.

“I think people need to be prepared and warned that they might find out something that could make them very uncomfortable," said Jeff Hettinger, one of the growing number of people who submitted a sample and discovered a sibling he never knew existed. His dad had never told him.

DNA testing from the likes of leading services 23andMe and Ancestry, among others, has always boiled down to risk and reward, a fascination and curiosity about one’s roots and/or predispositions to disease, balanced against trepidations around privacy, security, and, for sure, the possibility of an awkward or identity-altering discovery.

Yet rising concerns of data breaches or an overreach by law enforcement have made some people reticent about voluntarily spitting into a tube or taking a swab of the cheek, even as this popular pastime continues to grow.

MIT Technology Review estimates more than 26 million people have taken an in-home ancestry test.

But experts counsel DNA newbies to consider what for some could turn into an unpleasant flip side.

“Are there secrets in the family?” asks Whitney Ducaine, director of cancer genetics services at InformedDNA in St. Petersburg, Florida, who knows of cases where individuals found out they had no biological connection to people they had believed were blood relatives.

James Hazel, research fellow at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, raises another issue that may cut both ways: “The ability of people to readily identify anonymous sperm donors who wished to remain anonymous when they provided that sample.”

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