23andMe is working on a plan to send genetic testing kits to help reunite families separated at the border - but privacy issues loom
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- On Thursday, congressional representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) talked to 23andMe about possibility of using genetic testing to help reunite families separated at the border.
- The next day, 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki tweeted that the company had offered to "donate kits and resources to do the genetic testing to help reconnect children with their parents."
- A 23andMe representative told Business Insider on Friday that the company is currently working on a plan, but details have not yet been finalized.
- There are several issues with tracking down family members via DNA testing, most of which involve privacy concerns.
The Trump administration has vowed to reunite the more than 2,300 migrant children and parents who've been forcibly separated as the result of the "zero-tolerance" policy enacted by the US Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice.
But the logistical challenges of bringing families back together are only beginning to emerge. Because the cases of parents and children have been handled by separate agencies - and some parents have already been deported - reuniting kids with their parents is a dauntingly difficult and complex task.
Members of Congress are searching for potential solutions. On Thursday, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) talked to 23andMe about the possibility of using genetic testing to help reunite families, BuzzFeed News reported.
The next day, 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki tweeted that the company had offered to donate some of its spit-in-a-tube DNA-testing kits, along with "resources to do the genetic testing," to help families reconnect.
A 23andMe representative confirmed to Business Insider that the company is working on a plan for this, although "program details haven't been finalized."
To use DNA testing for this purpose, people would have to carefully collect spit samples, then send them to a certified lab to be tested and submitted to 23andMe's database. It's unclear what would happen after that, or what a system that uses genetic data to match these separated families might look like.
"We are waiting to see the best way to follow up and make it happen," Wojcicki wrote in her tweet.
Some experts have criticized the effort as unnecessary, however, suggesting that spreadsheets and photographs might be easier tools to accomplish the same goal.
"I find it astounding - astounding - that these families would have been separated in such a way that DNA would be required to reunite them," Tom May, a professor of bioethics at the Hudson Alpha Insitute for Biotechnology, told Business Insider.
If genetics tests do wind up being used for this purpose, consumer privacy concerns may arise.
Once genetic data has been submitted to a database like those kept by 23andMe, Ancestry, or one of the other myriad companies providing these services, it is difficult and in some cases virtually impossible to delete. Some experts fear the data can be hacked, used in a discriminatory manner by insurance companies or employers, or used to locate other family members without their consent.
That is one of privacy experts' main concerns about genetic data in general: that people beyond the individuals who choose to do a genetic test could be affected by its results. In the case of the Golden State Killer, for example, the suspect was tracked down using samples that a relative submitted to public genealogy database GEDmatch.
"You might be informed about the risks of doing a test like this, but other people might not," May said.
Importantly, 23andMe is a private database, not a public one like GEDmatch. But private data was hacked last month at DNA testing and genealogy site MyHeritage, compromising the data of 92 million users.
May said that although he believes 23andMe's offer to help unite families is well-intentioned, he hopes some ground rules will be established before the company gets involved.
"I think it would behoove [them] to supplement their good intentions by taking steps to make sure this travesty is not being used as a surreptitious way for authorities to enter individuals' genetic information into a law-enforcement database," May said. "I hope, therefore, that it is 23andMe's intention to destroy this information after its use for this discrete purpose of reunification, and refuse to enter this into a database."
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