DNA Testing: Is knowing your heritage worth risking your privacy?

Consumer data is becoming a form of currency for most corporations. If it seems like every company is constantly trying to get you to share your data, it’s because they are. Data, especially when it’s connected to your specific demographic profile, is extremely valuable to companies to gain insights about a multitude of trends in order to target advertising and more. But what makes our personal genetic data so valuable? And why are we so willing to give it to genetic-testing companies?

Do we realize what personal rights we are forfeiting in the future when we eagerly dive into knowing about our past?

If data is so valuable, we should be protecting it the way we would protect our wallets, but often there is little care given to our personal data or meta-data. When genetic-testing companies exploded into the market, consumer response was huge. It felt like every one of our family members, friends, and co-workers were finding out more information about their genetic makeup and sending the kits out as gifts. All the hype and the benefit of having a deeper understanding of genetic history was enough for many people to jump on the trend without giving much thought to the risk.

“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”

Jennifer King, director of consumer privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society

The risk of giving so much genetic data to these companies, whether they are helping you learn more about your allergens or genetic makeup, may outweigh the benefits. One of the biggest risks with data privacy is when third parties get involved and both Ancestry and 23andMe have been investigated by the Federal Trade Commission over their third party policies.  Most of the third party sharing is able to be opted in or out, but many consumers choose to opt-in regardless of if they know what they are truly sharing.

Another large risk we take when using genetic- testing is the physical sample submission. With Nest or Alexa, often times we can delete our data and profile but how could our society regulate the destruction of our physical sample if we decide we no longer want companies to have it. The physical sample has also been something of major interest to law enforcement. This could definitely be viewed as a positive, considering the suspected Golden State Killer was identified due to a DNA partial match. This technology allowed a partial match to shrink the suspect pool from millions to one family tree.

But is law enforcement looking to these privatized genetic-testing companies a violation of our rights? Is the regulation of technologies quick enough to protect us?

Artificial Intelligence combined with the in-home healthcare testing industry could very well be the key to solving the global healthcare crisis, as discussed in previous articles at solvetheunsolveable, but data protection remains a key concern. Artificial Intelligence is allowing patients and doctors to connect to vast databases and learn more about their personal diagnoses in just moments, something that not too long ago could take months or years. However, the data harnessed could be used for the wrong reasons when in the hands of for profit organizations. When consumers opt-in to sharing their data under the guise of finding the cure to a disease, they believe they are making the world a better place but who really stands to profit from that data?

People do think they are helping the world, helping society, even though they may not as an individual benefit. But if your DNA helps develop a drug for a pharmaceutical company, there is nothing governing what they do. It could be a drug they sell at a high profit but doesn’t help the world become a better place.

Jennifer King, director of consumer privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society

The lack of transparency is confusing to consumers and this is often an intentional strategy from companies in order to profit off of consumer data. Consumers should be very careful of releasing their most intimate data, their very own DNA. In the effort to learn more information about our history using our genetic data, we could be negatively impacting our future.


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Up next: Data Privacy Part Four

Alexa, How are you using my data?

Smart Home technology is a well saturated market with technology that just a short few years ago many thought could not be possible. We have long talked about voice assistants and video enabled devices but now technology that was once thought to be futuristic has arrived, seemingly omnipresent in many households around the global. Not only are Artificial Intelligence enhanced video enabled devices now available but they come in many varieties, from home protection to two-way video chatting with your pet.


Video “chat” with a pet?….

When did animals start chatting?


With these ever present devices in so many households – cameras, digital assistants, smart TVs, smart thermostats and more – are we enhancing our physical privacy or actually putting it in jeopardy? Are the benefits, such as automation, smart phone remote capabilities and more, worth the risk of data privacy?

Are you taking advantage of Smart Tech, or is it taking advantage of you?

So what’s the big deal if your smart home has data that’s making your life easier? Amazon’s Alexa can make it easier for you to order more household items. Google Home can integrate with Google Nest to allow you to control your A/C by simply telling it to change the temperature. All great features that help make things a little bit more convenient in our day to day, but what exactly are these companies doing with our data?

Amazon is pretty transparent in regards to the voice data Alexa is storing, a quick look on their website tells us that. But what about Google, their biggest competitor in the Smart Home space? Google is fairly transparent as well, though as previously mentioned in the intro post, changing your privacy settings may impact your service. Google’s privacy policy website tells us that they are mostly using your saved data to improve searches and targeted ads, see this video below:

These are great examples of transparency from these corporations and they outline relatively mundane uses for your data but it’s still important to understand. The future consequences of these corporations having your stored data should be the biggest concern. Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt said in 2010:

“One of the things that eventually happens … is that we don’t need you to type at all,” later adding: “Because we know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less guess what you’re thinking about.”

Eric Schmidt

Adapt that quote to the Smart Home and eventually Google doesn’t need you to speak to Google Home, rather the A/C just changes to suit your pre-determined preferences when you arrive home because of patterns in your stored data combined with Artificial Intelligence. Alexa doesn’t need you to tell her to order paper towels, they just show up because all of your stored data has told them it’s time for another shipment.

While these specific examples of transparency regarding data storage are promising, consider how much you’re willing to give away and where the line is with your data privacy. Consider the fact that these devices are always listening and while the corporations behind them may be simply using this data to “train” their AI, the government or third party apps could be using this data for other reasons.

In 2018 law enforcement subpoenaed Amazon for Amazon Echo data as evidence in a criminal trial for murder. The lines between privacy, technology and criminal justice are changing daily. Amazon is not the only tech company that has had this happen, Fitbit and Apple have run into similar situations.  While most technology companies are quick to defend consumer privacy the question still stands:


How much of your personal privacy are you willing to give away?


Letting AI into our daily lives is not something to fear but maintaining control over data and privacy should be a top concern. There’s many ways to protect your privacy, or at least limit your exposure, while utilizing the benefits of Smart Home tech. Awareness is the first step in achieving enhanced privacy. Visit 101 Data Protection Tips for a comprehensive list of ways to attempt to protect your privacy.


Up next: Data Privacy Part Four


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