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Scientists call for nationwide DNA database in new journal paper

Sean Patterson, ARP Sciences, LLC, quality management section DNA analyst, checks expiration dates on reagents in the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System – Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory. (Staff Sgt. Nicole Leidholm/U.S. Air Force)
December 04, 2018

On Thursday, the journal Science said if people are worried about someone getting ahold of their genetic information, one solution could be to add their DNA data to a universal, nationwide database.

This is a topic that became highly debatable last April when police were able to arrest the Golden State Killer, a case that had been haunting California authorities for years, Bloomberg reported.

A DNA sample retrieved from the crime scene matched with the DNA of the killer’s relatives in public databases which led to him, according to the Daily Mail.

Authorities were able to land a match and make an arrest, confirming that people’s genetic information can end up anywhere.

“Currently, law enforcement already has potential access to millions of people’s data. A universal system would be much easier to regulate,” said James Hazel, the lead author of the paper and researcher at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

Hazel, a genetic privacy expert, said that “the U.S., state and federal databases hold the genetic data of more than 16.5 million people who have been arrested or convicted of a crime.”

He added that “public and private databases could grant access to the genetic details of millions more with court permission.”

Hazel and his co-authors also said that “data collected from law-enforcement sources disproportionately exposes people of color.”

Many people have grown anxious about the privacy of information gathered by consumer genetic-testing websites like 23andMe and MyHeritage.

In June, more than 92 million account details were discovered on a private server from MyHeritage, a genealogy and DNA testing service. Even if you have never shared your DNA, public DNA databases can still find you.

According to a recent study, everyone’s genetic makeup could be exposed if just two percent of the population did a DNA test.

Hazel said that people would be more protected if there was an enhanced collection of DNA samples, which would contain more specifics sets of genetic data, but with increased regulations and controlled access.

“This is a very provocative proposal. But it all comes down to spurring a debate about the current system,” Hazel said.

Currently, the only law currently covering genetic privacy is the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act, which acts to prevent employers and insurance companies accessing information on people’s DNA to avoid bias.

The paper is being published by researchers from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Center for Genetic Privacy and Identity in Community Settings, a major center for the study of genetic privacy.