Ancestry data is collected information tracking an individual's family lineage to identify their ethnic origin, heritage, place of birth, and relatives. For thousands of years, records of ancestry data have been kept to clearly define concepts of birthright and familial succession throughout both modern and ancient civilizations.
Modern day technology has changed the processes of collecting and interpreting ancestry data. Companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA offer full ethnic background maps and potential family tree links to the general public. This thriving direct-to-consumer (DTC) ancestry data industry originates from a fascination with the concept of human identity and origin. The industry's success has lead to a new form of personalized medicines and treatment plans based on genetic makeup. As of 2014, genealogy was a 2-billion-dollar industry, and is continuing to grow. These new companies have made it affordable and efficient for the general public to discover more about themselves in terms of ancestry. However, as ancestry data is applied to health care solutions, a range of ethical problems, including racial supremacy, health, and privacy, emerges.
- 1 Modern Day Use and Influence of Technology
- 2 Ethics
- 3 Conclusion
- 4 See Also
- 5 References
Modern Day Use and Influence of Technology
Since the discovery of the double helix by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1935, scientists have worked tirelessly to better understand DNA, the human genome and its countless implications. The Human Genome Project, the first full human DNA sequence in history, cost almost $3 billion. In contrast with today's technological advancement, an individual can get their DNA sequenced and analyzed for personal use through a variety of popular vendors for under $100.
How Ancestry Data Works Today
With the popularization of discovering familial lineage online, it has become incredibly simple for a person to receive their ancestry data. Interested parties simply purchase a kit from a direct-to-consumer DNA testing company, such as 23andMe or any of the other 25 major competitors, follow the DNA harvesting directions (i.e. spit into a small plastic tube), and send the completed test kit back to the company. Once a DNA sample is received, the company will process and sequence the DNA. In the case of 23andMe, this process takes 3-5 weeks. With the help of trained professionals and algorithms, DNA sequencing can provide information that changes lives. Robin Smith, head of 23andMe’s Ancestry program explains how the algorithm works: "it takes an entire genome and chunks it up...It takes little pieces, and for each piece, it compares it against the reference data set. It compares it against British; it compares it against West African; it goes through the entire list, and it spits out a probability for [where that piece of DNA came from]" . DNA sequencing also has the capability to speculate potential relatives based on near complete matches of DNA, and boasts very accurate results for those considered “Close Family” or “First Cousins”.
Overall, technological advancements have made it relatively easy for the general public to access their genetic identity. With few barriers to entry, a relatively low cost, and a quick turnaround, access to ancestral data is quite easy. However, the modern applications of genetic data have become far more contentious when considering the ethical implications of a large quantity of ancestral data.
There are many different direct-to-consumer personal genomic websites that allow individuals to receive a report of their ancestry data. Distinguishable characteristics among these genealogy databases aside, the sheer variety in platforms and the user base they each hold demonstrates the true prevalence of ancestry data in modern life. Different sites use different reference databases to compare your genetic information. Thus, results may differ between different companies from the same genetic information.
|Ancestry||One of the most popular direct-to-consumer personal genomic websites with 3 million paying members that offers access to 10 billion historical reports.|
|23 and Me||A DNA test kit service that provides over 125 reports in an individual's ancestry, health predispositions, wellness, carrier status, and traits .|
|Family Search||Free of charge genealogy database service that offers comprehensive sequencing and analysis of personal DNA.|
|My Heritage||Israel-based company that provides a DNA test kit service that is delivered to consumers' homes and processed quicker than any other service option. The company supports 92 million users worldwide. Geni, another ancestry company was bought by MyHeritage in 2012. Geni helps connect people with ancestors, or make ancestral connections through generational family trees. The platform allows users to find and connect to relatives that might belong to their heritage or family tree, work with them, while organizing their relations. Their goal is to make one large tree called the World Family Tree.|
|Archives||A service that provides more indebt genealogical data from users who are already familiar with their genealogy.|
|FindMyPast||Provides genealogical services to individuals with little to no personal genetics-related knowledge, such as individuals who have been adopted. Results are returned through easily digestible and enable further action for research .|
Benefits of Ancestry Data
Hi, I am testing this. Whether it be learning about one's genetic predispositions to medical conditions, or discovering your family history, accessing one's ancestry data offers numerous potential benefits. For instance, 23andMe offers over 100 tests that provide consumers with a variety of personalized health data. You can discover what dominant traits will be passed down to offspring, what genes do and do not affect your health, and what foods you should and shouldn’t eat . 23andMe has used their ancestry and DNA databases to aid in research as well. A study conducted by Dr. Abraham Palmer and his team at the University of California - San Diego School of Medicine used over 20,000 consenting 23andMe users to determine that there is a connection between impulsiveness and drug use in humans . Other studies have identified many genes related to depression and other mental illnesses. Though it is frowned upon by healthcare professionals to make medical decisions based off of ancestry data - without input from genetic counselors, physicians, etc. - purchasing ancestry data services is less expensive than hiring a professional genealogist. Consumers are able to exploit the power of personal genomics and gain at least some insight regarding their lineage, family history, and/or genetic predispositions.
Moreover, consumers may find distant (or not-so-distant) relatives through ancestry databases. These services provide consumers with a unique opportunity to form connections with living biological family members who would have otherwise remained unknown. There are also many consumers of ancestry data who simply employ these services because they enjoy examining, learning about and/or discovering their genealogy - almost as if it were a hobby.
In recent popular culture, DNA testing databases were leveraged in order to capture the Golden State Killer. Law enforcement used DNA profiles from ancestry sites to catch and identify the killer by first locating his relatives . This is becoming an increasingly common method for law enforcement and forensic science, which has lead to an innovative and more efficient (albeit controversial) way to track down criminals. Furthermore, the same technology that is being used to solve decades-old crimes is being adopted by genealogists to identify victims of crime across the country as well. Currently, Private DNA test kits like Ancestry and 23andMe are closed to law enforcement due to privacy concerns but users can upload their genetic code site to public sites like GEDMatch which law enforcement officials are able to access 
Consequences of Ancestry Data
However, as technology expands to allow for the additional applications of ancestry data, numerous consequences have emerged and been brought to public attention. Just as Facebook and other social media platforms sell and share user data with their partners, 23andMe has been known to do the same with pharmaceutical companies (e.g., a $300 million-dollar deal with GlaxoSmithKline ). Direct-to-consumer companies disclose extremely personal (and private) genetic data to outsider organizations for research purposes, among other reasons.
Further, once the DNA data and ancestry data has been processed, it is almost impossible for the data to be removed from the site. Unintentional sharing is also very common which often generates discomfort or distrust among customers. . Even though all genetic information is anonymized - and (apparently) cannot be traced back to its owner - it should be protected as if it were each customer's social security number. As technological innovation continues to evolve, one can only imagine the ways in which genetic information will be introduced into everyday life. If today's consumers remain naive to the poor management of genetic information, and continue to hand over personal genetic information to companies that seek to profit off of it - said consumers are putting themselves at serious risk. There is greater potential that their personal genetic information will be leveraged against them.
Norman Mooradian’s states in his paper “Importance of privacy revisited”, that people should be able to control or restrict the access of information . To combat the potential consequences associated with the ways in which ancestry data is utilized today, it is important to give people the power to decide where their genetic makeup goes. Moreover, personal genomic companies are not sufficiently transparent regarding their practices and/or treatment of consumer data: individual consumers are likely not fully aware of the autonomy they are giving up when they submit their DNA to these companies. Effectively, consumers are relinquishing their right to "control or restrict" (per Mooradian) their own genetic information. AncestryDNA does offer an opt-in/opt-out feature for sharing information for research purposes when users first sign up, though it is rather difficult to find. Clearly, these companies value their ability to share or sell genetic information.
Since the previously mentioned case of the Golden State Killer, a public debate regarding the release of DNA to law enforcement has emerged. Currently, websites like Ancestry.com and 23andMe have been employed by law enforcement to aid criminal investigations. While most users of these genealogy services join with simple intentions, discover simple genetic/heritage data, they are often unaware that they are additionally making their DNA accessible for reference by law enforcement. Further, the conclusions law enforcement officials are able to draw and the actions they're able to take based on partial genetic matches found remains unclear. 
Ancestry data platforms are, in part, only as reliable as their customers. Incorrect data provided by a user can consequently affect a platform's data and its analysis and relationships to other users. Moreover, some platforms choose not disclose the information in their databases to their partners. The lack of transparency might indicate a lack of accuracy in the platform's data. Partners and users should remain skeptic of the results they receive. . Just with most things on the internet, the results are not 100% factual and should be taken with a grain of salt. The results are, however, a good starting point from which a customer could go on to look into their own genealogy and family tree because although the results are not always accurate, they can be realy close..
Ethical questions about ancestral data can arise due to the uncertainty that exists regarding how consumer data gets handled and how secure that data actually is. Without regulation, there are a number of ways in which companies can use customer's ancestral data for financial or market gain. In some cases, the incentive for large corporations to take advantage of user's data for financial gain poses some ethical dilemmas, primarily with in the case of maintaining user privacy.
Utility of Genetic Data
Genetic modeling companies, like 23andMe, promote their services to decipher individuals' genetic codes for healthcare related services, and to better understand individual biological functions. 23andMe offers Health+Ancestry product package, which aside from providing ancestral genealogical information, provides information on "Health Predispositions," "Wellness," and "Traits." This packaged service will provide information on "how your genetics can influence your chance of developing certain health conditions," "how your genes play a role in your wellbeing and lifestyle choices," and " how your DNA influences your facial features, taste, smell, and other traits."  Genetic modeling advertising implies that it can provide personalized healthcare and behavioral analysis based on the genetic data it collects on its consumers. A 2014 Oxford University study has found that only 8.2% of human DNA has any functionality. That implies that over 90% of human DNA has no functional role to play in human biology. Much of that DNA, according to the study, is simply genetic "baggage" that is carried over from human to human throughout generations. Genetic modeling companies that market individualized information on healthcare and traits, may be deceiving consumers by claiming to offer falsely overly-personalized products.
23andMe is one of the leading companies in online ancestry data with an aim that goes beyond processing customer's DNA for ancestry data; it also analyzes DNA to create insightful health reports for each customer's personal genome. The main DNA tests done through 23andMe provide guidance to the customer through the means of dietary suggestions or the restrictions of certain foods and valuable insight about the increased potential for disease risk within the customer's DNA. In a recent article in The Scientist, Prof. John Loike claims that some of these DNA tests are not as accurate as they are perceived to be. Loike supports this claim by pointing out that 23andMe DNA test only account for 3 of the most common BCRA mutations, the mutations that are commonly used to predict breast cancer. Although 23andMe has DNA testing that addresses the 3 most common mutations, there are over 1000 BCRA mutations that a typical genealogy lab would test for. Some insurance companies are even curious to know whether or not you've taken genetics or DNA test because then they could know if later down the line you could have a genetic condition or illness, that in the end will cost the company more money.
Hello, I'm Patrick
On television shows such as the American talk show Maury, couples are brought on to dispute and either verify or disprove the paternity for fatherless children. This may yield surprising results, such as a father with African ancestry having fair-skinned children. With DNA tests, people can be humiliated in public and sensationalize ancestry that is otherwise information people would keep more private. This brings up ethical issues of whether or not these tests should be used for public display and theatrics because of how embarrassing they can be for individuals.
Reddit has a subreddit called r/23andMe that is dedicated to discussing users' test results when they come back from 23andMe DNA test kits. While this has fostered fruitful conversation and better information amongst users, the subreddit has also turned into a part-time hub for stories of DNA test kits tearing families apart. The subreddit regularly features stories of users whose tests have revealed infidelity, untold adoption, and other issues that cause rifts amongst families.
One of the many claims made by rising white supremacy groups suggests that possessing pure European ancestry is the mark of superiority, and many individuals within these groups have used ancestral DNA testing as a form of validation in establishing their connection to their perceived superior ancestry. In some cases, white supremacists get results that suggest fully white European ancestry and they react with relief and celebration. Other white supremacists have taken DNA tests only to find out that they're not "pure" white, which causes them to generally discount the test results instead of re-evaluating their views on genetic hierarchies. They usually attribute non-white results to be a statistical error or affirm that family trees are the only evidence needed to prove white ancestry. Some extreme reactions include accusing Jewish people of conspiring to sabotage the DNA test results. This is ethically challenging as these tests by nature are not always accurate, and can push forth ideas and interpretations that are false. In any case, DNA tests may create reason for hate-based groups to spread their ideologies.
Leading ICT ethicist Luciano Floridi argues that the right to privacy is the right to a renewable identity. A notion that is contradicted by how contemporary ancestry data aggregators sometimes use customers' biological data without their knowledge (as discussed earlier). Recently, Danielle Teuscher had used a sperm donor to have a child and had her daughter and other members of her family take an ancestry test through 23andMe. While Danielle had not intended to find the family of her daughters donor, a woman who was not her mother was linked to her daughter as her Grandmother. Danielle decided to reach out to her donor's mother. The Sperm Bank had caught word of her reaching out, which breached their pledge to keep the donor anonymous from Danielle and her daughter, and is pursuing potential legal action. While it is in no part 23andMe's fault, ancestry data has played a large part in the ethical implications of this story as well as others.
Moreover, ancestry data has shed light on aspects of peoples traits that they weren't even aware that they had. Bob Hutchinson used a DNA test kit wanting to prove his heritage, however, he discovered so much more. Mr. Hutchinson's mother had never said much of her family other than that they were of Italian and Swedish descent, but through the tests, he learned he had African American roots. Knowing this, he worked to identify some of his relatives, whom had been told to never contact Mr. Hutchinson or his family. While it opened a new world for him, it also broke some of the ethics that the respective families followed, even if they felt they were wrong.
Similarly, although it is in the interest of companies like 23andMe to keep your data private in order to maintain customer trust and protect the future of their companies, many people are concerned that utilizing these services will eliminate the privacy of your DNA. The main issue is, DNA, like one's Iris is unique to an individual. And with this uniqueness, comes the threat of duplication or storing the DNA to be used at a later time with the innovative technology of today. Some hold conspiracy theories that ancestry data aggregator companies collect a larger DNA sample than what is needed to perform the basic tests that consumers pay for, and that the rest of the sample is kept in a lab to be used for other experiments outside of the DNA owner's knowledge. It is commonly known that scientists are working on the duplication of DNA, and in a futuristic maybe even dystopian sense - the cloning of a human body. If one considers the numerous samples companies like 23andMe is able to collect, they could potentially be the source of samples for this research and profiting off their customers' DNA more than they are letting on.
As some philosophers in information technology have suggested, informational privacy may be more effective when focused on protecting data related to users' self-identity. The DNA collected by companies like 23andMe can reveal vital information to individual's identity. Heritage, family, and numerous other unique traits that can be uncovered in ancestry data would likely be thought of as a part of someone's identity. If this information was then used or distributed outside of a customer's control, their privacy would have been seriously breached.
Another example of a privacy breach through a genealogical platform is the solving of the Golden State Killer case in April of 2018, where investigators were able to identify the killer by running his DNA through the genealogy platform GEDmatch and identifying his relatives. Although perfectly legal, there was question from the public as to whether this method of data collection should be allowed, since investigators were parsing through the data of people who were not suspects and who were not convicted of anything.
Because of the uniqueness of DNA, hacking is a large concern. In October 2017, there was a MyHeritage breach which leaked over 92 million personal account details. The hack became evident due to a private server, which included email addresses and hashed passwords. Because the data is private and MyHeritage understands that the trust with the consumers is extremely coveted, they keep several different servers of data.  Although MyHeritage customers passwords were leaked, their users's account contents were not, but this breach is evidence of the immense privacy concerns associated with Ancestry data.
Religious Affiliation of Ancestry Data Services
A separate potential conflict of interest that many users may not consider relates to the religious affiliations of many population genealogy databases. Namely, FamilyHeritage, founded in Salt Lake City, Utah, is sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon Church. Though FamilyHeritage offers a widely used service whose user base extends across 70 countries, the founding motive to track ancestral data stems from the belief that people can be reunited in an afterlife. Historically, the LDS Church has collected information on the deceased in order to eternally join families through a temple ceremony. Similarly, Ancestry.com, founded in Lehi, Utah by two Brigham Young University (BYU) graduates, also has clear roots in the Mormon church. In fact, Ancestry.com's own records emphasize the intent for users to determine the religious affiliations of their deceased ancestors, and their website offers a "Church Histories & Records" search engine to allow users to do so. Though FamilyHeritage and Ancestry.com extend their services to the general public and not just those inside the Mormon Church, religion can divide individuals as often as it unites them, and thus some users may find using an ancestry data cite sponsored by the church to be problematic.
Accuracy and the Applied Implication of Self-Identity
Ancestry DNA tests are popularly believed to reveal the regions in which our genetic makeup comes from. Results are generally given by a breakdown of our genetic makeup with regional percentages an individual’s DNA derives from. This method is adequate to provide an overview summary of an individual, however, it misleads the consumer’s understanding of what the information means.
The accuracy of an individual’s results is evident when taking the same individual between different companies. Although closely related, the results won’t have the same percentages and will even include new origins of one’s genetic makeup. This is from the result of discrepancies between companies’ different DNA databases. Different sources of data and privately held sample collections have contributed to discrepancies amongst all ancestry test companies. They also don’t analyze the whole strand of DNA, but target locations that most likely contribute to the distinguishability between one individual to another. Humans have around 3 billion base pairs in our genetic code, however, 99.9% of these pairs are identical to everyone. It’s from the remaining 1% of our genetic code where companies can distinguish the qualities that reveal our ancestral past. These unique identifiers are referred to as Single-Nucleotide Polymorphisms or SNPs. Depending on the company used to analyze an individual’s DNA sample, different SNPs will contribute to the results while others may be ignored.
Error exists in the analysis of an individual’s genetic makeup by a misinterpretation by the consumer. The percentages given in the result don’t represent the proportionality of the DNA but also an inherent variance of likelihood with the results given. Consideration must be made that genetic makeup isn’t limited by the borders of countries or regions. Particular SNP arrangements can exist everywhere in the world, however, can have higher concentrations within a region of the world. The results are a probability with a margin of error, and shouldn’t be viewed as completely accurate. 23andMe even includes a confidence slider to illustrate results based on certainty. If this slider is moved toward more confident, the results become increasingly vague.
This misinterpretation of data has influenced individuals to reconsider their familial past to the extent of impacting their self-identity. Someone unfamiliar with distant regions tied with their DNA makeup may assume roles based on stereotypes. These results can impact the identity of their consumers from probabilities and misinterpretations. When results are inaccurate, it arises a question of ethics by considering the role these companies make in influencing individuals’ self-perspective to cause an alteration in their self-identity.
As demonstrated, ancestry data has been a catalyst for many different ethical concerns. Whether it has been used to interpret medical data and allowing law enforcement access to our data, to circumnavigating the privacy rules of sperm banks, it had caused some unsettling feelings for many people. It is clear that in some instances the information is used to uphold the moral good, but the underlying concerns demand more discussion. One way to ensure people's privacy, proposed by Kathleen Wallace, is to use the idea of traits, such as gender, age, Social Security Number, and more as the defining qualities of that make up our anonymity. When some of these traits are hidden from public knowledge, these people are considered to be anonymous to an extent. Another way might be to have more regulations on how companies should state clearly the possible ways they will use the data besides genealogy purpose and how they should ask informed permissions before actually using the data. Senator Chuck Schumer warns that privacy concerns are not made clear enough to consumers. Consumers most private information could potentially be sold to third parties, requiring an investigation by the federal trade commission.
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