Why did I risk my privacy with home DNA testing?

Nothing I learned about my ancestry was worth the price-tag and privacy risks involved

I have made a terrible mistake. I have sold all my DNA on the internet. Actually, it’s worse than that: I recently paid a not-insignificant sum to a technology company that could decide to sell my DNA on the internet.

Why did I do this? Well, embarrassing as it is to admit, I did it because all my friends did. Direct-to-consumer genetic testing is all the rage these days and many a millennial gathering seems to include a discussion about your test results - at least in the US, anyway, where the technology is most popular.

The DIY DNA industry entered the mainstream last year and is projected to grow rapidly. Industry estimates suggest that roughly 1 in 25 adult Americans now have access to their genetic data.

One of the most popular companies claims that more than half the people in their DNA database haave at least some Irish DNA.



Getting your DNA analysed is easy. Simply buy one of the numerous kits available, spit in a tube and send said spit to a lab. A few weeks later you get a report breaking down whatever genetic information you have paid for.

I chose to shell out $199 (€161) for an analysis that promised information about my ancestry and genetic propensity to conditions including Parkinson’s disease, late-onset Alzheimer’s and various forms of cancer. That’s the Ferrari of at-home genetic tests, by the way. For just $29 (€23.50), I could have bought a Superhero DNA test revealing my “unique superhero traits”.

Disappointingly, this doesn’t test you to see if you are part spider but looks at whether you have gene variants linked to things such as high muscle strength.


So, what did my results reveal? Well, mainly that, like many things in life, direct-to-consumer genetic testing is tailored for white people. The test was able to break down my 53.5 per cent European ancestry in very granular detail, telling me what percentage British and Irish I was compared with Italian, French, Balkan and Iberian. However, it broke down the rest of my heritage into the incredibly broad categories of Middle Eastern and north African, explaining in a helpful blurb that, hey, they’re basically the same thing.

My results contained a lot of information I have long suspected: such as the fact that I do not have the genetic makeup of an elite athlete. It also offered some highly dubious “insights”. Apparently, people with my genetics tend to wake up at 8.39am on their days off, for example.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing I learned was that my DNA contains 238 Neanderthal variants. I thought that might make me special but, no, we are all a little bit Neanderthal apparently.

Our Neanderthal ancestry affects us in ways I had never imagined. I am proud to say I have one Neanderthal variant associated with a reduced tendency to sneeze after eating dark chocolate. I’m putting that information on LinkedIn immediately. Although, to be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised to find LinkedIn has already procured a copy of my genetic makeup and is using it to suggest other people I should add to my professional network.

The company’s privacy policy contains the usual caveats about not using your sensitive information without your consent, but these are very broad, and consumer protection experts have advised that you ought to assume that, when it comes to DNA tests, you are signing your life away.

Delving into my DNA taught me some fascinating things about Neanderthal sex and afforded an opportunity for some genetic navel-gazing. However, nothing I learned was worth the price-tag and privacy risks involved. Direct-to-consumer genetic testing may be growing in popularity, but I strongly suggest you don’t try it at home.

Meanwhile, my only consolation for idiotically sending my intimate information into the ether is that I can at least blame my Neanderthal DNA. No wonder those guys went extinct.

 - Guardian Service