Security risk from at home DNA tests

Did you get a DNA testing kit under the tree this year? The Department of Defense has released a memo warning service personnel that use of home DNA testing kits poses a threat to security.
Ancestry DNA test kit
Home DNA tests are performed with a simple saliva swap sent back in the post for analysis. Image: Flickr

DNA testing

Home DNA testing kits are popular; it’s interesting to learn more about your ancestry and history! Kits are cheap to buy and easy to use, with a posted saliva swab you simply pop back in the post box.

However, in a memo issued on 20th December, the Pentagon advises against their use. The memo says that using such kits could ‘potentially create unintended security consequences and increased risk.’

How and why? The Pentagon says that companies selling these tests have targeted military personnel. Offers include pricing discounts and ‘other incentives’.

DNA test kit in a Christmas hamper
DNA test kits are available from as little as £49. Image: 23andme

What are the risks?

The first concern is about the health of military employees. When joining, applicants must disclose details of physical and mental health conditions. They also undergo testing and assessments.

For example, an applicant with a condition such as asthma might not be able to apply for field duty. This is because their access to medication would be compromised in some roles and postings.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) publishes a list of health conditions which might impact an applicant’s success.

New personnel are also required to undertake a Medical Assessment.

How do DNA test kits pose a problem?

The issue is that most providers are unregulated. Whilst it is interesting to find out a little more about your history, data about your genetics may not be accurate.

This could cause problems for personnel who are identified as having a predisposition to some medical conditions. The Pentagon is discouraging members of the forces from seeking this third party information. This is to avoid conflict with official testing and assessments.

National security concerns

Information is the other big issue in this age of data manipulation.

In the memo, the DoD says that there are concerns within the scientific community. They fear that serving members of the forces might be subject to mass surveillance.

The risk is described as ‘outside parties exploiting the use of genetic data for questionable purposes‘.

It stands to reason that the Pentagon is concerned. There have been cases of DNA information being sold to third parties.

I can’t think of any good reason why anybody would want to compile a database of military personnel and their DNA!

Is home DNA testing safe?

By and large, I’d say yes. However, check the privacy policies before you sign up to anything to protect yourself from allowing your data to be misused.

Ancestry DNA says that ‘your privacy is very important to us and we are committed to protecting your DNA‘.

Their Privacy Statement assures users they never sell your data. That said, the list of information retained on file (until or unless you request it be deleted) is very lengthy and very personal!

23andMe was one of the company’s previously found to be selling customer data. In their new Privacy Policy (to be amended on 1st January 2020) they also confirm that your data will never be sold.

Customers can choose to be involved in the 23andMe research program which allows your data to be used in projects with undefined ‘partners’.

23andMe DNA test kit
Testing kits can cover genetics, ancestry and health conditions. Image: Flickr

Protect your data

Home testing kits are a cheap and easy way to research your genetics. But be as cautious as you would with any online service about what you agree to.

Our health data is increasingly valuable. For most of us, the risk is having your data used to target marketing. For military personnel, however, misuse might be something far more sinister.

What do you think prompted the memo from the DoD? Have you seen any advertising campaigns targeting military personnel? Have you used a DNA test kit and did you experience any issues? Share with us your thoughts!

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