Why handing your DNA over to ancestry databases is risky

What, exactly, do they do with your DNA?

Why handing your DNA over to ancestry databases is risky
Big Think graphics team

The triumphant identification and capture of the feared Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, showed the power of DNA analysis in crime fighting. It also opened a frightening new chapter in surveillance and invasive tactics to track DNA which could prove detrimental to our privacy.  In a worst-case scenario, ominous sounding policies such as “predictive policing” could morph into the collection and maintenance of DNA libraries of anyone with a hereditary propensity to commit crimes. The U.S. Supreme Court has already afforded police the right to collect DNA samples from anyone detained in order to check for outstanding warrants on other crimes.

Make no mistake, the resolution of the Golden State Killer case is a welcome outcome. The serial killer, burglar and rapist committed at least 12 murders, more than 50 rapes and over 100 burglaries from 1974 through 1986. But we are in a wild new frontier when it comes to DNA, privacy and the way that law enforcement and others can access and search our DNA.

To solve the Golden State Killer case, investigators used ancestry databases to look for rare genetic mutations or sequences that matched the DNA found at the crime scenes. Tens of millions of people have uploaded their genomic information into various services for tracking their ancestry, such as Ancestry.com, or for identifying genetic traits with health implications, such as the 23andMe service. 

The law enforcement team doing this was not a bunch of PhDs. It was a team of normal cops who knew enough about how the databases worked to understand that they could be used to try to track down cold cases and leads. It’s entirely possible today for a fairly skilled amateur investigator to do a DIY genetic material-matching investigation.

In the coming years, we will see a flood of DNA information enter all manner of services and systems: in healthcare, government and law enforcement, as the cost of sequencing an individual’s genome approaches single digits, becoming about what you might pay for a cup of coffee. Even now the cost is $100 to $200 in many instances. That is low enough to make it cheaper than the vast majority of most medical diagnostic tests today.

At the same time, tools are emerging that will make DNA collection and sequencing in the field —without a skilled lab technician—possible and affordable. There are some systems live now but this will become widespread within the next five years. Because all of us throw off high volumes of genetic material with every sneeze, handshake or even by rubbing our arm against a table, it will become trivial to harvest DNA from just about any public persona.

In this new era of omnipresent DNA exhaust and nearly omniscient DNA analysis, the current legal framework is insufficient and unfair.

The concerns about DNA exhaust and growing troves of DNA information being used as an unfair and unreasonable weapon against us are now a very real thing.  Take the BRCA gene, which is highly predictive of breast cancer. As we identify more and more of these types of relatively simplistic genomic probabilities, then I imagine health insurance companies will insist on getting a genome test (if they are legally allowed to do that - which they are not right now). The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA)  - which took effect in 2009 -  already addresses this to a small degree by prohibiting the use of DNA considerations in health insurance or employment decisions.  But GINA does not prevent genetic discrimination in other forms of insurance such as life or long-term disability or, say, automobile insurance. In fact, life insurance companies already have refused coverage to applicants based on results of genetic testing - precisely because the applicant had the BRCA gene.

Further, GINA does not apply to persons receiving health care through the U.S. Veterans Administration or to businesses with less than 15 employees. (This is a giant gaping hole that will become more obvious as the cost of genetic sequencing drops closer and closer to $5). GINA does not effectively address whether data shared with genetic testing services can be used to track us as part of a criminal investigation or for other purposes.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court did find that DNA samples can be taken from suspects without consent during an arrest and used to search for other outstanding warrants against that suspect. This decision split the court 5-4. In a rare occurrence, both the most liberal factions and the most conservative factions of the justices vehemently opposed the majority ruling. So there is a precedent for DNA sample seizure. And in 1988 the Supreme Court did rule that there is no right to privacy in trash outside the home but the court in 2015 refused to consider whether it was OK for police to collect DNA samples inadvertently shed by suspects.

Clearly, this is not a settled matter among legal scholars and civil liberties groups, some of whom believe that this ruling codified an unlawful form of search and seizure. What’s more, they point out, it could unfairly discriminate against minorities, who are disproportionately represented in the Federal genetic databases. In at least one case, faulty DNA information in a familial search was used to arrest a suspect, who was later exonerated.

Which leads us back to the Golden State Killer. Many of the genetic testing and ancestry analysis services put in their terms of service that they will share their information with third-parties, including the police. This doesn’t mean they are selling genetic data to the highest bidder. But some do comply with police requests to search their data to look for potential matches in relatives of suspected criminals. Law enforcement agencies often compare these private database samples against the millions of DNA profiles the U.S. government has already collected from suspects and convicted criminals. Called “familial searching”, this technique has been banned in Washington D.C. and the state of Maryland.

Make no mistake - there are some very murky areas around what constitutes a reasonable search and seizure of someone’s DNA. Errant assumptions in the Golden State Killer case led investigators to chase two false leads. To be sure, crime hotlines pull in numerous - at times thousands - of false leads. But those leads don’t carry the same force as DNA, which is backed by science and is direct proof of presence or proximity, unlike, say, cell phone information which is an object on our persons but not definitive proof.

In the case of the Golden State Killer, errant lead collection included a judge in Oregon even issuing an order allowing investigators to collect DNA samples from a man in a retirement home - by force, if necessary. He turned out not to be related to the killer. What if that had happened and it had been the killer? Does that DNA evidence collected by force constitute self-incrimination? It’s also important to note that DNA evidence is not infallible. In the case of the false arrest of Michael Usry, the DNA evidence appears to have been corrupted, resulting in a false positive. DNA, like any other physical object, can also be modified or marred by environmental conditions.,

There is now a rush to research cases both recent and from the distant past with this new tool. And now, each and every one of us, as we move about our daily existence must cope with the fact that the DNA we exhaust everyday can be easily collected and used against us. Right now, citizens have few protections, and law enforcement and others have every reason to push forward with efforts to track us by our DNA. As more and more information about our DNA is collected, it will be harder and harder to control how that information is used. In the era of DNA exhaust, we may lose control of how our own genetic material is stored, analyzed and collected. That’s a pretty scary future.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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