Today In Dystopia: You Can Now Be Hunted Down With A DNA Sample Using Publicly Available Information

By: 01.18.13

Oh, hey, yeah, remember that “privacy” you used to have? MIT just proved that it’s out the door. Finding you is, technically speaking, as easy as sequencing some DNA and firing up Google.

Why? Because of that genealogy fad.

The process, as determined by former computer security researcher and current genomics researcher Yaniv Erlich, is this: Get some DNA, in this case anonymously donated DNA from MIT’s Whitehead Institute, and sequence it. Find the Y chromosome on the genome, and look for repeating sequences called “short tandem repeats”, or STRs.

STRs tend to be passed down from generation to generation, and as a result, genealogy hobbyists have sequenced them a lot and tied them to surnames in databases that cost twenty bucks, max, to access. All you have to do is find the same STRs, and you’ve narrowed the field to two surnames (your grandfathers).

But tens of thousands, even millions, can have the same surname. So Erlich “triangulates” it, by looking up the ages and states of everybody with that surname. Finding that is easy: It’s not protected under HIPAA rules, so it was tied to his DNA samples. Then it was just a matter of scanning the obituaries.

The net result? Erlich nailed the identity of all five anonymous DNA donors he tried this on.

The good news is that you need the whole genome for this to work, and that Erlich’s work does depend on having both your age and state. The bad news is that, if, for example, a private detective found some of your DNA and sequenced it, he’d probably have your current state of residence depending on where he found it. It wouldn’t stand up in court, but it’d be fairly easy to find you.

Oh, did we mention that DNA sequencing is becoming increasingly cheap and easy? Sleep tight!

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