This Christmas, millions of people around the world will receive home DNA kits from companies like Ancestry.com, 23andMe, MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA. Millions have already submitted samples of their saliva for testing, in hopes of learning about their heritage, but according to the Pentagon, these tests present significant risks.
Earlier this week, The Pentagon advised all members of the military to not use consumer DNA test kits, saying the information collected by private companies could pose a significant security risk.
The memo, co-signed by Joseph D. Kernan, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, and James N. Stewart, the assistant secretary of defense for manpower, warned the tests could expose “sensitive genetic information to outside parties” and could pose “personal and operational risks to Service members.”
“These [direct-to-consumer] genetic tests are largely unregulated and could expose personal and genetic information, and potentially create unintended security consequences and increased risk to the joint force and mission,” states the memo.
“The key thing about your genetic data … it is uniquely yours. It identifies you, so if you are going to entrust it to a company, you should try to understand what the consequences are,” said Jennifer King, director of consumer privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.
Could Big Pharma be Mining your Data?
According to Forbes, you should have major concerns about your DNA privacy. Since 2017, when 23andMe partnered with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the world has known that genetic testing companies and pharma are linked. In this particular case, 23andMe gained a $300 million investment, and GSK – along with six other pharma companies 23andMe made deals with – get consenting patients’ behavioral, health and genetic information.
While many may argue that this is good for medical science, what’s to stop a company from creating diseases that only they can cure?
I know it sounds far-fetched, right?
Oh wait, there was that time that the German pharmaceutical company Bayer knowingly sold blood-clotting agents infected with HIV to Asia and Latin America months after withdrawing them from Europe and the US.
Could there be more to the story, like DNA targeted BioWeapons?
We really have no idea what these companies are doing with the DNA they receive. While some medical professionals would love access to this treasure trove of information to potentially create new and better medications, some experts say it could also be used by bad actors to create bioweapons that target certain individuals or groups. In fact, Russia has been warning its military DNA collection could be being done with the intention of using the samples in biological warfare research.
This is may sound like science fiction, but the world’s military leaders have worried for some time that these samples could be used to create DNA targeting bioweapons. In fact, in 2007, Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that the Federal Customs Service of Russia had instituted a ban on the export of human biosamples for fear that foreign governments were developing genetic biological weapons.
Similarly, The Atlantic published an article in their November 2012 issue that reported that the US government was taking measures to protect then-President Barack Obama’s DNA from foreign powers for fear that it would be used against him. At the same time, the government was allegedly collecting DNA samples from other world leaders, presumably to act as a ‘nuclear deterrent’ against personalized bioweapons being used against the President.
In 2017, Newsweek reported that the FBI was worried that the Chinese are buying up U.S. genomics firms — and hacking genetic databases — to build biological weapons capable of targeting specific ethnicities or individuals.
According to the article, James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, recently named genetically engineered bioweapons as one of the nation’s top security threats.