A DNA double helix in an undated artist's illustration released by the National Human Genome Research Institute to Reuters (Photo : Reuters)
It seems that another realm of privacy has been breached - researchers have been able to identify around 50 anonymous DNA donors from genealogy databases. The problem? The participants believed that their identities were going to be kept secret.
"We have been pretending that by removing enough information from databases that we can make people anonymous. We have been promising privacy, and this paper demonstrates that for a certain percent of a population, those promises are empty,'' said John Wilbanks, chief commons officer at Sage Bionetworks, in a Wall Street Journal report.
The story goes that a group of researchers were studying tell-tale genetic signs on the Y chromosome, and the way they went about it was accessing public genealogy bases. In the process, they uncovered names of people who previously thought they would remain unknown.
"It only takes one male,'' said research team leader Yaniv Erlichled. "With one male, we can find even distant relatives.''
The researchers, using the data gathered from genealogy sites, then ran further searches to essentially compile a profile on the DNA donor. They were able to sift through obituaries and various other publicly-available documents to determine the identity of these "anonymous" donors.
The real issue here, behind the actual study, is the privacy of those found out.
Hank Greely, the director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University said that "we cannot promise people confidentiality." The statement only reiterates the growing sense of ambiguity over what constitutes one's personal identity in the scientific and medical field.
A previous genetic study in 2008 was also able to identify the participant and sent ripples in the scientific community as to how to deal with donor confidentiality issues.