Genetic Database Information Linked to Identities
Findings from a recent study published in the journal Science have brought up concerns regarding the privacy of genome databases. Relying entirely on free, publicly accessible resources over the Internet, researchers were able to recover individuals’ surnames and additional possibly identifying information, the study shows.
A genetics researcher was recently able to identify five different randomly selected individuals, as well the individuals’ families that had no part in the study, according to an article published in the New York Times.
According to the study, it took between three and seven hours for researchers to complete each identification, combining DNA sequences with online genealogy research.
Researchers notified the National Institute for Health of their findings, and information on participants’ age was subsequently removed from the publicly available databases.
While the study raises concerns regarding the privacy and security of information in online genetic databases, it does not indicate any one specific method others could use to identify individuals involved. Some experts caution against overreactions to this information, according to NYT.
Despite the wide availability of the data, there have been no reports of illegal, harmful identification of individuals. Dr. Jeffrey R. Botkin, associate vice president for research integrity at University of Utah, noted in the article that “it is hard to imagine what would motivate anyone to undertake this sort of privacy attack in the real world.”
No one answer has arisen to solve the issues surrounding the security of information available in public genetic databases, but many experts assert that it is a problem that should be recognized. “We always should be operating on the assumption that this is possible,” said Barbara Koenig, researcher at University of California in San Francisco, in the NYT article.