February 21, 2024

Over the years, mail-in genetic testing has grown in popularity, with 21% of Americans  participating, according to the Pew Research Center. 

One of the most common companies to offer these tests is 23andMe, founded in 2006 with the hope of “building a personalized health and wellness experience that caters uniquely to the individual by harnessing the power of their DNA,” according to its website. 

While mail-in DNA tests can be quick and efficient ways to find out more about yourself, there have been concerns surrounding them since they arrived on the market. In December, 23andMefound itself at the center of conversations about safety as it announced seven million users’ information had been accessed by an anonymous hacker. According to The Guardian, the hacker began selling  23andMe profiles for $1 to $10 per account. 

“My father was adopted and did the test, too. He was able to find his biological mother and father.”

Susannah Balcer, sophomore nursing major

The information contained in the profiles depended on the type of test that the user purchased. 

The basic (ancestry) test provides information about the users geographic ancestry, inherited traits and a DNA relative finder option, but the ancestry and health test also includes health information, such as predispositions, genetic health risks and carrier status reports. To get this information, users are required to mail in their spit and can access their results weeks later through their online account. 

Dr. Daniel Szeto, professor of biology and biochemistry, explained that the degree to which people are concerned about their information getting stolen varies depending on the person and their intentions. 

“If you have nothing to hide, I think the tests are good. [The tests] give you the idea that we are all related, we are not isolated on an island by ourselves. It begins a conversation and the easiness of doing it — just submitting your saliva,” Szeto said. “The privacy is a concern, but I don’t think that 23andMe is sophisticated to the point where they can interpret things like, ‘This person with this type of sequence is lazy and wouldn’t be a good worker to hire.’ I don’t think they can do that. But, in terms of some disease, it would be easier to tell.” 

Susannah Balcer, sophomore nursing major, said that the hacking doesn’t change her opinion about the company because of the great experience she had. 

“It doesn’t change my opinion because it is important to know your genetic history,” Balcer explained. “I did [the test] to find out if I had any family I was not aware of. My father was adopted and did the test, too. He was able to find his biological mother and father. It was exciting to expand my family on my dad’s side.” 

Balcer compared the risk of the genetic test to sending money in a Christmas card. 

“It’s a risk I’m willing to take,” she said.

Tania Brooks, sophomore film production major, said she is not as confident. 

“After reading articles about the hacking and finding out that so many people’s information got stolen, it is concerning,” Brooks said. “The purpose of [the test] is to be able to safely access information so it does change my mind about taking it. I originally wanted to to be able to learn about my ancestors and history.”

Szeto said he believes that there is room for growth in the genetic testing market and hopes that in the future do-it-yourself style kits will become popularized, allowing for people to not have to send their DNA samples but instead be able to test it themselves. 

“You can analyze some things that you’re looking for without needing to send the information to a company,” Szeto said. “You have better control. I think that’ll be a way of advancing this particular technology.” 

Since the breach, 23andMe has been hit with several lawsuits, with users claiming they weren’t notified of their test results being compiled in curated lists that were then shared on the dark web, according to The New York Times. The lawsuits are ongoing. 

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