ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Pentagon is advising members of the armed forces not to use home DNA testing kits like Ancestry and 23andMe. In a memo sent out last Friday, the Department of Defense says DNA testing companies have been offering military discounts and other incentives to DOD personnel. Yahoo News first reported on the memo.
Jennifer Couzin-Frankel writes about bioethics and genetic testing for Science Magazine, and she's with us now. Hi.
JENNIFER COUZIN-FRANKEL: Hi. Thanks for having me.
COUZIN-FRANKEL: Why would the Pentagon make this kind of request? What information is at risk here?
COUZIN-FRANKEL: They were a little bit vague in their memo that was released. But I noticed two different points that jumped out at me. The first is that these genetic tests can provide health information that, as they noted, have varying degrees of validity. And they're not always accurate. So there's a concern that inaccuracies could pose a higher risk to people in the Department of Defense, military personnel than the general public.
SHAPIRO: Because they're mandated to reveal their medical history to the military?
COUZIN-FRANKEL: Exactly. For example, if you do one of these tests and you find out that you, according to the test, have a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes or breast cancer or dementia in the future, there may be a requirement that you disclose that information. So that's a concern, especially if the test results aren't accurate. And the second concern cited in the note is that if this genetic data is accessed by outside parties - potentially, the governments of other countries - that could put people in the military at some risk - potentially.
SHAPIRO: What do you think the Defense Department means when, in the memo, it refers to potential, quote, "unintended security consequences and possible mass surveillance and the ability to track individuals without their authorization"?
COUZIN-FRANKEL: This isn't my area of expertise. One could certainly speculate. They're probably being cautious about data collected on their troops, and this is another large set of data, potentially. And it still has a lot of unknowns. So we're still learning a lot about the DNA that's being collected - you know, what these different variants mean for different diseases, whether they raise risk of different diseases that they haven't been linked to yet. You're dealing with all of these uncertainties. Once the data's collected, it's collected. And there's - you know, we can't uncollect it. So I think there may be worries about - where's this going to go one year, two years, five years from now?
I think another concern is around deidentified DNA data. There's a lot of effort to strip away the personal identifiers from data and then study it in different ways or access it in different ways. And there have been some discoveries that it's often very difficult to truly deidentify data. And of course, Department of Defense may have other ideas that they're choosing not to share. But they obviously feel that there is some potential risk here, and they are trying to steer clear of it.
SHAPIRO: We reached out to a couple of the larger companies operating this space. Ancestry sent us a statement saying they do not target military personnel with discounts. Furthermore, protecting our customers' privacy is our highest priority. 23andMe sent us a statement which says, in part, our customers should be assured we take the utmost efforts to protect their privacy and that the results we provide are highly accurate.
Do you have thoughts about what these companies are saying here?
COUZIN-FRANKEL: I would say there are definitely examples of inaccuracies. And some - and the companies, you know, to some degree, are upfront in their testing reports that there can be inaccuracies depending on what we're talking about here. And part of that is because this is an ever-evolving field. You know, what we understand about a gene today is not necessarily what we understand about it a year from now. That's one issue. And another issue is there can be disagreements about, you know, what a strip of DNA is telling us. And also, these companies are - they're regulated in a different way than many labs that offer information back to patients. So yes, I think there have been examples of inaccuracies out there, not necessarily from those two specific companies that you're quoting but from some of these direct-to-consumer companies in general.
SHAPIRO: Jennifer Couzin-Frankel writes about bioethics and genetic testing for Science Magazine. Thanks for speaking with us today.
COUZIN-FRANKEL: Thank you for having me.
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