For years public genealogy databases have been matching genetic ‘patterns’ with surnames online. Now scientists have found that with nothing but a genetic code and internet access it is possible to pinpoint the exact owner of a piece of DNA.
- In the US, experiments involving the sampling of genetic material allow a participant’s age and state to be ‘attached’ to the genetic code. Searching for people online using only age and state (e.g. using PeopleFinders.com) would typically return 600,000 male names. However, by combining this information with a list of possible surnames (generated by cross-referencing the genetic code with public genealogy databases) the median list size shrinks to 12.
- In the UK, the National DNA Database has over 4 million records, representing a substantial number of potentially traceable individuals.
- This study suggests that ensuring anonymity of genetic information could be a challenge in the future. This research might offer major benefits in crime investigation, but could reduce the level of public trust in genetic research. With thousands of new uploads to the genealogy databases every day it is possible that the efficiency of surname inference will increase.
Implications and next steps: This research raises important privacy issues, which may need to be tackled to ensure public trust in genetics studies is not compromised. Whilst beneficial for law- enforcement purposes, developments in this area could have knock-on effects for environmental and health research if there are major public concerns.