How a DNA Test Altered My Approach to Handing Over Data

How a DNA Test Altered My Approach to Handing Over Data

For the longest time, I tried to keep my digital presence as tight as possible: minimal social media activity, using an alias when I did, avoiding using Apple Pay, and never connecting to public Wi-Fi. This became an absolutely impossible endeavour, especially given my choice of career.

Data breaches are, unfortunately, inevitable and most recently, the Optus and Medibank fiascos saw many Aussies who didn’t really know what cybersecurity was actually understand the consequences. While I’m not saying I’m now lax with my security/privacy practices, I’ve reconsidered my position a little, remaining privacy conscious, just not as extreme.

Now, like many of you, I’ll often hand my data over if I get something of value in return.

Before I digress too far, I have to explain why I’ve told you all of that. It’s for this reason I have avoided doing a DNA test for the past…years. But I just did one through Ancestry and my results have now been returned.

AncestryDNA kit

For $129 plus shipping, the AncestryDNA kit promises to provide “clear-cut historical insights” and “rich geographic details”, connecting the customer to “the places in the world where your story started”. It also might help you discover living relatives you didn’t know about.

Privacy concerns

Ancestry has a whole section on its site dedicated to privacy. The Privacy Centre starts with a big bold comment that states: “Your privacy is important to you. That’s why it’s so important to us.” And is followed by an FAQ and a video (embedded below).

“Protecting our customers’ privacy and being good stewards of their data is Ancestry’s highest priority; that starts with the basic belief that customers should always maintain ownership and control over their own data,” Ancestry’s privacy policy notes, adding, “Ancestry will also not share customer personal information with law enforcement unless compelled to by valid legal process.”

It also adds:

“Ancestry does not share your Genetic Information with third-party marketers, insurance companies, or employers, and we will not use your Genetic Information for marketing or personalised advertising without getting your explicit consent.”

The reason I decided to go ahead wasn’t because I drank the marketing fluff Kool-Aid, rather because I took a step back and looked at what else I give my information to. Merely putting my iPhone down and closing TikTok in the process, I looked up and saw a Google Home device, sitting next to a smart TV that’s connected to a soundbar that is controlled via an app I have installed on my phone – did I make the decision in a “fuck it, everything else has my data, why not give it to something I’m desperate to find out” kind of way? Probably, but I also felt silly using privacy as an excuse in 2023.

Turns out I was just shit-scared to know about my background.

Finding out the results

Before receiving the results, I didn’t really know anything about my heritage. I had a little bit of information, such as the colour of my skin, eyes, and hair. But that…that was it. And I got through a few decades of my life not knowing. I leaned heavily on privacy as my excuse for not finding out. But I probed and probed Ancestry to poke a hole in their privacy claims, and spoke to an expert who said there would be pretty severe ramifications for the company on selling my data to, say, an insurance firm, if it was ever found out. But they basically said every step is in place to confirm that data stays within the Ancestry ecosystem. (I’m also sure insurance firms would be able to determine my lifestyle choices from the data I have peppered around the internet if they needed to know it, anyway).

I’ve also not committed any crimes, and as I don’t know those who I share DNA with, if they’ve committed a crime, I’d be pretty glad my DNA could help law enforcement.

I’m not ever going to say Ancestry is immune to a data breach, no one is, but I still use Uber, Gizmodo Australia still uses Facebook, and we still provide you with wrap-ups of Optus deals – all of those brands are to blame for some of the worst data breaches. But I was comfortable that this was worth the risk.

For me, the return on investment, with the investment being my data, was worth it. As we shift completely to a world where you hand bits of your data over to access the most mundane of things, what you get out of it versus what they get out of it will need to be the North Star.

It is now for me, at least.

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