Data relating to the Y chromosome of the sample of 911 American men whose genetic information was collected through a private company was used to search for their corresponding surnames in public databases. The researchers' algorithm was able to identify the family name of 12 percent of the participants.
Because they were only looking for near-precise matches, this is a very conservative return, notes Prof. Halperin. A broader search would reveal a short-list of possibilities that could reveal even more identities. And with some additional details that are commonly included in study databases, such as age group or geographic location, there is a much higher chance of tracing a person's identity, explains Golan. Those with rarer surnames were also easier to identify accurately than those with more common names.
While Prof. Halperin believes there are some positive applications of these findings, such as searching for lost relatives or identifying bodies in mass disasters, there are also serious security issues to consider. Even if the genomic data is originally anonymous, it can still be used to invade an individual's privacy and that of their family as well. Insurance companies could use this genetic information to determine if you are at higher risk for a particular illness and ultimately deny coverage, suggests Golan.
Steps must be taken to ensure that identities are secure while allowing scientists to access valuable genomic information, the researchers say. As credit cards and other forms of ID are encrypted to extract required information while safeguarding personal details, researchers must find a way to publish genetic da
|Contact: George Hunka|
American Friends of Tel Aviv University