Expectation of DNA Privacy


I had a debate with someone about the expectation of DNA privacy. I have questions about whether we have a reason to expect DNA privacy. One of the arguments against using family tree genetics is that if your cousin uploads a DNA profile to GEDMatch, it should not be allowed to impinge your privacy. However, the argument has yet to sway me, because I’m not sure we should expect any DNA privacy. I know that sounds insane, but the truth is, we really have no concept of privacy. Look at how many of us sign away privacy to use social media. We are constantly shedding our DNA. Everything we touch has our DNA on it. Like social media, do we actually have any reason to think our DNA should be private? Aren’t we perhaps trading that right away when we touch things?

What I mean by this is that we know enough about DNA in this day and age to understand that if we aren’t constantly wearing latex gloves or body condoms, we are leaving our DNA behind. And we are aware that getting a DNA sample has improved to the point that a simple touch can leave a big enough sample.

If I go into a store and try on clothes, am I then expecting the store to take reasonable precautions to safeguard my DNA when I know that by trying on clothing, I am leaving my DNA behind? And I can take measures to prevent this, such as not trying on clothes in a store or wearing protective gear when I go out in public. But I don’t take those precautions, so how much privacy can I truly expect for my DNA?

The person I was having this discussion with, mentioned that shedding skin cells is not a voluntary thing that we can stop doing. I agree with this, but neither is shedding hair. The only thing we can do is take preventive measures to stop it from falling out. Do we then expect shed hairs to be part of a privacy agreement with the world? I’m going to touch this and leave some hair and skin samples behind, but I expect it to be private.

Furthermore, I share about 7-13% of my DNA with my first cousins. Should my right to DNA privacy extend to dictate what they can do with their DNA? Especially considering the small amount we share? Where does one person’s right to DNA privacy begin and end in other words? And I’m back to the example I used yesterday, my DNA is on every piece of trash I throw out. Every door handle I touch, every countertop, every time I try on clothes, I’m leaving my DNA behind. How much privacy do I expect to have when it comes to my genetic profile? And why is my expectation of privacy, when I leave so much DNA behind every day, higher when it comes to that small 7-13% that I share with my cousin?

And here’s another thought, a large number of us do have a criminal or two in our family. I have a couple on each side. I know two have been required to give DNA samples to be kept by the state of Missouri and probably the FBI’s CODIS database. Those samples could be used to find cousins by a trained genetic genealogist. Is a public database of DNA really any different? I guess, I wonder if searching for a CODIS familial match is different than using a public database to find a familial match.

Do we trade our right to DNA privacy away by being part of the world? By going to the grocery store, Starbucks, or sending packages via the mail, we are providing constant samples of our DNA. Do we have the right to expect others to safeguard our DNA when we ourselves do not because it is inconvenient or irksome? Or is the expectation of privacy where DNA is concerned a myth?

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