The Navy is warning sailors that taking popular direct-to-consumer genetic tests could pose potentially dangerous risks — beyond the discovery of a family member you never knew you had.
Sailors might expose themselves and their families’ personal and genetic information to digital hackers and inaccuracies from the largely unregulated tests themselves could cause readiness problems, according to an administrative message released earlier this month.
“Sailors should be advised that Direct to Consumer genetic testing results may inaccurately predict health problems that would appear to raise doubts about a member’s medical readiness,” Navy spokesperson Lt. Samuel Boyle said in a statement to Navy Times Wednesday.
“Furthermore, giving away genetic information creates personal and operational risks, including mass surveillance and tracking individual Sailors. Until further assessment, Sailors are advised to receive health information from a licensed professional and avoid Direct to Consumer genetic testing.”
“Moreover, there is increased concern in the scientific community that outside parties are exploiting the use of genetic data for questionable purposes, including mass surveillance and the ability to track individuals without their authorization or awareness."
But the Navy’s advisory goes further. While acknowledging that learning about one’s family tree is “good and interesting” in “most cases," it notes that unintended consequences might lurk in the branches. That "new information could negatively affect your family,” according to the message.
Thanks to relatives taking the tests, genetic information could become known to the wider public on social media or other corners of the internet. The Navy urges sailors to discuss potentially “unwelcome associations” and other possible consequences with their family members before they participate in the testing.
California officials credited information gleaned from a genetics database used by researchers and amateur sleuths with helping to nab the Golden State Killer in 2018. But the availability of DNA data, including who uses it and how, also has raised privacy concerns.
One of the nation’s most popular retailers of at-home tests, 23&Me, announced earlier this month that it was laying off 14 percent of its staff. Chief Executive and Co-founder Anne Wojcicki told CNBC that she believed privacy concerns might be tied partly to a decline in sales.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers more information on direct-to-consumer genetics tests, including those the have been approved for marketing, on its website, as well as frequently asked questions.