A technician handles DNA samples at a laboratory in Hong Kong, China.
Anthony Kwan—Bloomberg via Getty Images
By Robert Hackett
April 28, 2018

Good morning, Cyber Saturday readers.

On a shelf in my bedroom lies a DNA testing kit I treat with the same suspicion one might afford a parcel addressed “Pandora.”

I received the kit as part of a gift bag at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference a couple years ago. I remember turning the unassuming box over in my hotel room and almost giving into temptation. What relatives might my ancestral inquiry unearth? To which diseases am I most susceptible, and how might I tweak my lifestyle to prevent them?

Alas, I have resolved never to crack the wrapper, and this week’s arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, believed to be the Golden State Killer, has reminded me why.

Investigators pinpointed DeAngelo after testing DNA preserved from decades-old crime scenes against online genealogy databases. A relative of the alleged serial rapist presumably uploaded her or his information in the hopes of discovering blood relations. A partial genetic match laid the trail for the cops to follow, and they later fingered their quarry after testing remnants of DNA that DeAngelo had supposedly discarded in public.

Let’s be real: I am not hiding from the law. Nor am I seriously concerned about outing a mass murderer in my lineage (mostly because I consider the odds unlikely). I admire these investigators’ clever forensic tactics. But I refuse to partake in voluntary DNA testing because its ramifications are unclear to me. I hold my privacy dear—and that of my family more so.

Giving up genetic information means relinquishing an asset so personal and unchangeable that there is no going back, for you and for those closest to you. Writ in those nucleotides is a record of your most intimate kin and medical history. I regard this information as toxic waste—and I am not satisfied with the state of information security to keep the data away from prying eyes.

Perhaps this decision is a miserly one, holding back possible scientific and medical progress by choosing to live in the dark. My attitude is probably rooted in some deep paranoia cultivated after reading too much dystopian fiction in my youth. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t informed by the chilling possibility—however slight—that a political regime could ever use this information against me and my loved ones; look no further than the plight of the Rohingyas in Myanmar to understand what I mean.

In some ways, my intransigence is foolish. Nothing is stopping anyone from nabbing traces of my saliva off a cup I toss in a public waste bin. Or from scooping up a thread of hair I might shed on the sidewalk. We all slough off bits of ourselves everywhere, every day. DNA is hard to protect.

But I have no plans ever to sign off on the terms of service that preface a consumer DNA test—no matter how many provocative conversations I might have with my desk-mate, Fortune’s biotech reporter, Sy Mukherjee. (You can subscribe to his health newsletter here.) It’s just not happening.

Whenever I get the urge to swab, I recall what did the cat in.

Have a great weekend. I’d love to know whether you agree or disagree with my stance; do write.

Robert Hackett



Welcome to the Cyber Saturday edition of Data Sheet, Fortune’sdaily tech newsletter. Fortune reporter Robert Hackett here. You may reach Robert Hackett via Twitter, Cryptocat, Jabber (see OTR fingerprint on my about.me), PGP encrypted email (see public key on my Keybase.io), Wickr, Signal, or however you (securely) prefer. Feedback welcome.


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