Home / Blog / Getting to you using other people’s genome!

Getting to you using other people’s genome!

DNA sequence. DNA sequence or ‘genetic fingerprint’ on a computer monitor screen. Each coloured band represents one of the bases that make up the genetic code of this sample of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). To obtain this, a sample of DNA was cut into fragments by enzymes. These fragments were then placed in an agarose gel and separated by electrophoresis, the application of an electric charge, causing the fragments to move at different rates. DNA samples can be used to determine paternity and be used as evidence in certain criminal investigations. Source: Science Photo Library. To request the high def image: G210/0734

DNA fingerprinting is “old” stuff, going back to the 1980ies (watch the clip). What is new is the amount of DNA now available in several “accessible” data bases. People are having fun in looking at their sequenced genome, through companies like 23andMe, Ancestry and others. Actually, sequencing the genome has become a nice Christmas present, its price is going down and the number of people sequencing their genome is increasing exponentially. Most of these genomes are kept private but more and more people choose to making their genome available on open data bases, like Ged Match.

Now, the fact that people may choose to share their genomes has nothing to do with me or you. If we decide not to share we are off the loop. Right? Wrong.

A nice article on Wired shows how using these publicly available genomes it is getting easier to track your relatives by detecting similarities and given that we are all genetically connected it is now most likely that some of your relatives to the 3rd/4th/5th grade are present in such data bases and by using a little trace of your DNA (that you have left on a glass, on the surface of a table basically anywhere….) it is possible to establish the connection. Once you have that connection it is a matter of cross referencing other (publicly) available data to identify you.

In a new research just published on Science more than 60% of Americans with a European root can be identified today using open genetic genealogy data bases and it would take, statistically, just 2% of American having their genome sequenced and made available on an open web site to be able to identify the remaining 98% within a day. 2% of US Americans with an European ancestry means 4 million people. Today over 1,2 million of them have already had their genome sequenced and their number is growing fast. By early in the next decade this can become a “fait accompli”.

There are already several web services offering the possibility to find people and to harvest tremendous quantity of (supposedly) private information just by mining the web. We can expect their number to increase as well as the breath of information they will be able to provide. And I am talking about “legal” data retrieval, accessing social networks and the like. Governments and not so legal organisations can do much more.

Say bye-bye  to privacy and put the blame on technology and on you that every single day are willing to open up your private information. Are you placing one picture of you on the web (like Instagram)? Well you should be aware that by doing that you are immediately providing a way to software to search for you (your face) in billion of other photos being published by other people most of which you don’t even know. And once a software has found your face in another photo it is a piece of cake to place you at a particular location at a particular time, discover the people you are likely to know,  and … well anything.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.