The United States military is warning its members against taking any popular direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry tests, citing privacy and surveillance concerns in a memo issued by top officials in the Department of Defence (DoD).
The memo recommends that DoD members refrain from buying or using direct-to-consumer genetic tests because they could “potentially create unintended security consequences and increased risk.” Officials say they issued the warning amid a surge in marketing toward members of the military.
The memo does not cite specific services, but companies such as Ancestry.com and 23 and Me are in the middle of their annual push to sell DNA tests with deeply discounted kits on sale for the holiday season.
“Exposing sensitive genetic information to outside parties poses personal and operational risks to service members,” says the Dec. 20 memo. It was signed by Undersecretary of Defence for Intelligence Joseph D. Kernan and James N. Stewart, assistant secretary of defence for manpower and reserve affairs.
Direct-to-consumer genetic tests can identify a person’s ancestry based on a DNA sample obtained with a cheek swab. Some tests also claim to be able to spot the markers for various genetic diseases, as well as the genes said to make one more susceptible to certain types of cancer.
However, the DoD memo warns that many of these tests have not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“Possible inaccuracies pose more risk to DoD military personnel than the public due to service member requirements to disclose medical information that affects readiness,” the memo says.
“Moreover, there is increased concern in the scientific community that outside parties are exploiting the use of genetic data for questionable purposes, including mass surveillance and the ability to track individuals without their authorization or awareness,” the memo says.
Ancestry.com and 23 and Me say they keep their clients’ information private. However, smaller DNA-testing firms make some of their data available to the public — a practice that has allowed police to solve decades-old cold cases by comparing a suspect’s DNA to the public database. Investigators famously used this tactic to make an arrest in the Golden State Killer case, thanks to a sample submitted by the suspected killer’s relative.
Genetic data has several valuable applications beyond law enforcement. It can be used to develop new gene-specific drugs. It can potentially be used by insurance companies to gauge whether a person poses a higher risk of developing certain diseases, which could potentially make that person’s insurance premiums go up.
It can also be used for state-sponsored biometric surveillance and racial profiling, as China is accused of doing.
In other words, a person’s genetic data can reveal much more about them than just their background.
“Very few of these genetic tests can be run as cheaply as they’re being offered to consumers,” Malia Fullerton, a professor of bioethics and humanities at the University of Washington, told Global News last May. “The way you make your money is by repurposing the data.”
Ancestry.com says it has more than 14 million users, while 23 and Me says it has more than 10 million.
In a statement to NBC News, 23 and Me said it takes the “utmost efforts” to protect consumer privacy and ensures highly accurate results that have been authorized by government regulators. The company said it doesn’t share information with third parties without explicit consent from its customers.
Ancestry.com told Yahoo News that it doesn’t share data with insurance companies or employers.
“Protecting our customers’ privacy and being good stewards of their data is Ancestry’s highest priority. Ancestry does not share customer DNA data with insurers, employers, or third-party marketers,” an Ancestry spokesperson said in an emailed statement to Yahoo.
“Ancestry will also not share customer personal information with law enforcement unless compelled to by valid legal process, such as a court order or search warrant.”
The Pentagon has not commented on the memo.
Global News has reached out to the Canadian Armed Forces for comment on its approach to these tests in Canada. A spokesperson for the CAF was unable to provide a full response by press time, but noted anecdotally that he is unaware of specific guidelines around such tests.