life in pixels

DNA Testing Can’t Tell Us Who We Really Are. It Can Tell the Cops.

Photo: ElizabethForMA via Youtube

Do we know anything new about Elizabeth Warren, now that we’ve seen her DNA test results? Besides, I mean, that she seems to have questionable judgment about when and when not to take the president’s bait. Before we learned that Elizabeth Warren most likely had a native ancestor somewhere between six and ten generations ago, we knew that she did not belong to a tribal nation, and that her connection to Native American identity was based largely on family lore. We now know that lore has some evidentiary basis.

But the criticism of Warren’s claims around her identity has never been about the purity of her bloodline, but about the facts of her experience as a person in the world. As Nick Martin writes on Splinter, Warren “is not Native because she is not, and has never been, a Native American to anyone else, especially not Native peoples.” Has the discovery of a Native predecessor changed that? If not, do we really know anything new about Elizabeth Warren?

If Warren placed a misguided faith in the power of a genetic test to speak to her true nature, she’s not alone. At least 15 million people in the U.S. have mailed their spit to commercial genetics laboratories like 23andMe and, the marketing material for which tends to suggest that genotyping will reveal something essential to a person’s identity. At its DNA portal, encourages me to click through to my “DNA Story,” where I can “Discover the places, history, and cultures that shaped who you are today — using just your DNA.”

This is, of course, bunk. Your DNA, as Sarah Zhang put it in The Atlantic recently, “is not your culture,” and it certainly isn’t guaranteed to tell you anything about the places, history, and cultures that shaped you. The scientific-seeming results you get from a home DNA kit are fun, in the manner of a party favor, but they’re not particularly reliable, especially for people from outside of the U.S. and whose ancestors are from outside of Europe. And even if they were pinpoint accurate, what you’re being told is, as British geneticist James Rutherford puts it, “something that is at best trivial and at worst astrology.” If you want to know who you “really” are, you should examine your family history, the environment you grew up in, the experiences you’ve had and relationships you’ve formed. Those tell you a lot about who you “really” are. Your DNA itself tells you very little.

It can tell someone else a lot, though. The same day Warren revealed the results of her DNA test, the journal Science published a study indicating that 60 percent of Americans of European descent could be identified through one of the large commercial genetic databases. By 2020, that figure will have increased to 90 percent. In taking genetic tests no more useful than horoscopes, white Americans are creating a database for cops and corporations that’s more useful than mug shots and fingerprints.

To be clear, that figure doesn’t indicate that 60 percent of white Americans have been individually genotyped. What it really indicates is that they don’t need to be. (Though, at the rate commercial DNA testing is expanding, a little more than 21 percent of all Americans will have been sequenced by 2025.) Enough genetic sequences have been uploaded to publicly accessible databases like GEDmatch that in 60 percent of cases, a given DNA sample from a person of European descent can be identified as a third cousin or closer to an existing profile. This is, you might recall, how police cracked the Golden State Killer case earlier this year: by uploading a sample of the killer’s DNA, identifying a relative, and following the family tree to their suspect. Even if you’ve never spit in a tube and shared your results with GEDmatch, there’s a decent chance someone you’re related to has.

Now, if you’re not a serial killer, you may not particularly care that you are likely now identifiable by your own DNA in databases to which you’ve never personally contributed. And, if you’re a whiggishly optimistic capitalist, you might not mind that the information you provided in exchange for an infographic giving you a vague approximation of your geographic ancestry is likely being packaged and used in lucrative research by pharmaceutical companies. (GlaxoSmithKline bought a $300 million stake in 23andMe earlier this year, contingent on access to some of the testing company’s data. The data 23andMe shares with GlaxoSmithKline will be anonymized, but, discomfitingly, we don’t have a clear idea of how; even 23andMe notes in its privacy policy that “there is a very small chance that someone with access to the research data or results could expose personal information about you.”)

But other people probably do care, and the problem of widespread DNA testing is precisely that there’s no real way to respect their wishes. You may not care much about your own genetic privacy, but your second and third cousins might, and your casual sharing of your genetic profile suddenly makes them much more identifiable. Or, on the other hand, you may guard your genes jealously — but how much use is that, really, if your relatives are enthusiastically uploading to GEDmatch?

Maybe none of it really matters. It’s possible that the medical and law-enforcement benefits of aggregating data from millions of DNA tests could outweigh more abstract privacy and civil-rights concerns. If we lived in a world with stronger legal protections for consumers, and a clearer regulatory regime governing private DNA-testing companies, it’s easy to imagine us getting much of the benefit of cheap genetic testing and little of the drawback. We don’t live in that world, unfortunately. As it is, genetic-testing companies are regulated by three different agencies (the FTC, the FDA, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services), and are generally subject only to a voluntary, industrywide privacy policy. There is no consistent protection against, for example, a person uploading a DNA sample belonging to someone else.

And worse, it doesn’t seem at all like we’re getting close to that world. We live in a moment of increasing interest in the intersections between the science of population genetics and the sociology of race — interest driven in particular by people obsessed with determining and maintaining racial hierarchy. What worries me most about Warren’s grand DNA-test announcement is the extent to which it provides political imprimatur to the practice of DNA testing as a measure of racial authenticity at a moment when race and ancestry are so clearly salient to the question of how people are treated under the law.

It’s too bad because, well, there are good reasons to undergo genetic testing. You may want to see if you’re at increased risk of certain diseases, like breast cancer. (Though experts suggest that commercial home DNA kits, whose results can be difficult to interpret, are not necessarily the best method for determining this.) You may be genuinely curious about your ancestors, and lack a detailed family tree or history to tell you more. And if you can interpret the results along the appropriate, trivial-to-astrological scale, why shouldn’t you be able to get your DNA sequenced? The problem being that someone else, somewhere, might be looking at those results with very different intentions in mind.

DNA Tests: Bad for Finding Identity. Great for Surveillance.