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[ISN] DNA hack could make medical privacy impossible


By Kevin Fogarty
March 11, 2013

It may now be possible for anyone, even if they follow rigorous privacy and anonymity practices, to be identified by DNA data from people they do not even know.

A paper published in January in the journal Science describes a process by which it's possible to identify by name the donors of DNA samples, even without any demographic or personal information. The technique was developed by a team of geneticists at MIT's Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and is intended to demonstrate that science and technology have surpassed the techniques and laws currently in place for safeguarding private medical data, according to Yaniv Erlich, a fellow at Whitehead and member of the research team.

The point was not to reveal private information, but to demonstrate a systemic weakness that will require research, debate and new laws and technology to overcome, Erlich says. The technique relies on the custom of passing family names down through the fathers family. By statistically modeling the distribution of family names, the researchers were able to narrow the list of possible contributors of DNA samples. They then pinpointed individuals using a range of other publicly available sources, none of which were directly connected to the original donors and none of which included protected personal data.


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