The Hidden Dangers of Using 23andMe, Former FBI Agent Warns
DNA testing kits offer valuable information, but it could get into the wrong hands.
For many of us, DNA testing kits like 23andMe and Ancestry.com are an enticing gateway into learning more about our genotype and genealogy. From connecting with genetic relatives to discovering how DNA can impact your health to insight into your heritage, these websites can help you uncover a clearer picture of yourself and your family tree.
But before you spit into a tube and send it to a lab for testing, you may want to consider what you're giving up in return. A retired FBI agent recently made a TikTok video warning people that DNA testing websites pose a real threat to users' privacy. And in some cases, that could come back to haunt you.
In the latest installment of his "Things I Would Never Do As An FBI Agent" TikTok series, former FBI agent Steve Lazarus spoke out against DNA testing kits, specifically 23andMe and GEDMatch, citing numerous scenarios in which volunteering your DNA could result in more harm than good. Since its posting, the clip has amassed over 6.5 million views, accrued nearly 600,000 likes, and been saved by over 57,700 users.
"Today's topic is those home DNA test kits that promise to put you in contact with family members you never knew existed. For me, it's a hard no. And if you wanted the reason in one word, it's privacy," Lazarus tells his followers.
Lazarus notes that while "these companies promise to protect your privacy and data," that doesn't necessarily keep everyone from accessing your information—specifically law enforcement.
He references a case reported by The New York Times in 2019, where a Florida detective was legally allowed to conduct "a blanket search of over a million records blindly" of GEDmatch's database to narrow down his list of "suspects."
According to the NYT article, the court order raised several eyebrows because "the Florida judge's decision will affect not only the users of these sites but huge swaths of the population, including those who have never taken a DNA test. That's because this emerging forensic technique makes it possible to identify a DNA profile even through distant family relationships."
The dangers don't stop there: Health insurance companies could also take advantage of information from DNA testing kits, Lazarus warns.
"Do you really think a health insurance company wouldn't want a copy of your DNA when they're deciding whether or not to grant your coverage or to allow you to get a treatment for an existing or a pre-existing condition?" he challenges his followers.
"What if they get taken over by another company that doesn't share their moral or their ethical views?" he asks.
With almost anything, there's the potential of misuse—but when it comes to protecting your privacy and more specifically, your DNA, that's a line Lazarus isn't willing to cross.
"I understand that some people might want [genetic testing kits] to find their birth parents or some other legitimate reason. But for my money, 23, it's not for me," he concludes.