Crime and Privacy: Using Consumer Genomics to Identify Anonymous Individuals

Anonymous DNA can be identified using genetic genealogy data

About 60 percent of the USA 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.

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 USA given a sample of their DNA.

More than 15 million people have used direct-to-consumer genetic tests as of April, according to Erlich and his co-authors.

To prove this point, the researchers started with DNA information and a couple of basic details about an individual and, after finding a couple of their relatives via genetic archiving services they were able to determine who the person was without so much as a phone call.

Daniel MacArthur, a genomics researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, said he endorses the cryptographic signature, but that it doesn't go far enough. In Erlich's words, "you fish in more ponds, you might find something".

As the case of the accused Golden State Killer brilliantly highlights, long-range familial searches are an incredible tool for law enforcement. A man believed to be the Golden State Killer, who was responsible for at least 12 murders and more than 50 rapes between 1976 and 1986, was arrested after investigators used publicly available ancestry databases to track him down.

Erlich, the author of the study, says he plans to get ahead of a potential crisis, to make sure that genetic genealogy does not become the focus of a leak scandal on par with the data breaches suffered by large companies such as Facebook.

People of purely African and Asian descent are less vulnerable because fewer people in those groups have had their DNA sequenced and put into a public database. So the team checked to see how many relatives on the order of a third cousin or closer they could find for each individual in their data set. The team found that a DNA sample from an American of Northern European heritage could be tracked successfully to a third-cousin distance of its owner in 60 percent of cases. He said that website does not allow forensic searches. CNN has reached out to GEDmatch for comment. "The problem is that the very same strategy can be misused". In 2013, his lab at the Whitehead Institute showed that it was possible to discover the identities of people who participate in genetic research studies by cross-referencing their data with other publicly available information.

"I used to be a vulnerability researcher, so I'm always thinking about how vulnerabilities can be exploited", Dr Erlich said.

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"We found that once a genetic database covers roughly 2 percent of the adult population, a match of a third cousin or closer is expected for nearly all persons of interest", Carmi said in a statement.

So far, 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo is the most famous person to be identified this way.

A similar cross-referencing technique was recently used to break the long-cold case of the Golden State Killer after a relative's DNA popped up on a genetic testing site.

Research participants, the latest study found, could be identified with this newer technique, too.

Law enforcement agencies use all possible ways to find the criminals. "If the DNA sample is not available to do that, then what might typically be available would be the forensic genetic markers". Extensive genealogical data traced the identity of the perpetrator, which was confirmed by a standard DNA test.

"Therefore, even if a specific individual is not in these databases, a relative of theirs could be, which is enough to identify them".

With DNA databases "you need just a minute fraction of the population to really identify many more people", said Yaniv Erlich of Columbia University, an author of the study.

The closer you are with a relative, the more similar your genetic make-up is. First, they call for changes to rules that allow discarded material in clinics to be subject to genetic testing.

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