Researchers use the Internet and anonymous genomes to identify individuals

Brittany A. Roston - Jan 17, 2013
Researchers use the Internet and anonymous genomes to identify individuals

In a world dominated by the instant availability of digital information, social profiles, and constant connection to the proverbial hivemind, privacy is more of an issue than it has ever been. While many users are ready to pounce on the latest Facebook privacy blunder or diligently request that their data be removed from people search websites, there’s one area of privacy that has been all but overlooked: DNA. Researchers at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research demonstrated how they were able to identify anonymous study participants using nothing more than their genomes and the Internet.

The researchers sought to identify individuals who participated in a genomic study, a goal they were ultimately successful in. The project was performed using the Internet and the participants’ genome sequence. This was done in order to demonstrate an area of privacy concerns that have been overlooked, as well as to initiate public discussion of the matter.

How did the researchers manage to do this? The first step was recognizing the correlation typically present between last names and the Y-chromosome, which is caused by the standard of a male inhereting both his father’s Y-chromosome and his last name. Patterns on the chromosome are usually shared between father and son, helping further pinpoint identity.

Armed with this knowledge, the researchers used ten public genomes and ran them through a specially-designed algorithm to identify the patterns in the Y-chromosomes. Once they were identified, the information was then used in conjunction with genealogy databases to find potential last names. Once some potential names were found, details were tossed into the mix from public records, such as age, to pinpoint the participants’ identity. Overall, they successfully identified 50-percent of the individuals.

According to the researchers, as genomic sequencing becomes cheaper and more common, a new type of privacy concern will arise. For now, the odds of this type of identification happening to the average person are small, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute. Still, public discussion on the matter shouldn’t be delayed.

[via Wired]

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