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Pentagon warns US military not to use home DNA testing kits

6 January 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1029

The Pentagon is advising members of the US military not to use commercial DNA testing kits, stating that they could pose a security concern.

A department of defense memo, obtained by Yahoo News, warned that the kits could put military personnel at risk.

'These genetic tests are largely unregulated and could expose personal and genetic information, and potentially create unintended security consequences and increased risk to the joint force and mission,' says the memo signed by Joseph D Kernan, the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, and James N Stewart, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower.

Commercial DNA testing services such as 23andMe and Ancestry have proved exceptionally popular in recent years, with respectively 15 million and ten million users globally to date. Not only can they give information about an individual's heritage, they also provide health reports about the likelihood of developing specific heritable diseases, including Alzheimer's.

Whilst the memo is not explicit on how genetic data could compromise national security, it implies that it might uncover sensitive and potentially inaccurate information regarding the health of service members. There is a degree of uncertainty in how accurate the tests are, with a 2018 study suggesting that up to 40 percent of some commercial at-home DNA tests can give misleading results.

As military members are required to report their medical problems and are not covered by the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), which prevents employers and health insurers discriminating against individuals based on their genetic profile, this could have negative professional consequences.

In addition, there are worries over the privacy and sharing of genetic data stored by these companies.

'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,' stated the memo.

Despite assurances from a spokesman from Ancestry to the Telegraph that the company takes measures to protect customers identities, a similar commercial DNA testing company database has been hacked in the past.

Erin Murphy, a professor at New York University's School of Law, who is not associated with the military, said this kind of genetic information could be used to identify an individual working undercover and that in a world in which a few stray cells can be used to identify a person, there is no such thing as covert action, and no such thing as anonymity.

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