TECH
01/23/2013 11:28 am ET

Genetic Secrets Can Now Be Used To Learn Your Identity, Study Finds

Hundreds of people in the U.S. have put their DNA data online, and for medical ethicists everywhere, it's suddenly a problem. That's because in Friday's issue of the journal Science, MIT researchers published a study demonstrating that it's possible to identify people based on their publicly available DNA profile.

The researchers used DNA information collected by the 1000 Genomes Project, which allows scientists to study unique genomes by collecting anonymously-donated DNA information from people around the world. Using only people's ages, genomes, and state of residence, the MIT team was able to identify five males "randomly selected from the study group," as well as several members of their families, The New York Times reported.

But how did the team identify donors, using only limited information? Public websites like Ysearch and SMGF already allow users to plug their genetic information into a search engine and "search for matching records on the basis of genetic similarity," according to the journal. The MIT team searched donors' DNA on these databases to reveal possible surnames, and from there, the journal reports that it was relatively easy to sniff out donors using sites like PeopleFinders.com and USA-people-search.com.

The National Institutes of Health reacted to the MIT study quietly and quickly, removing the ages of donors in the 1000 Genomes Project database and publishing a statement in Science magazine alongside the researcher's study. But it admitted that with more and more information continually available on the Internet, it may not always be able to protect the privacy of donors.

Not all who chronicle the MIT study share the NIH's restraint. In a world where names are sought in connection with DNA, columnists like io9's Gonzalez imagine a "Minority Report"-inspired future with "advertisements based on your DNA." But perhaps the more realistic future to fear is one that io9 doesn't cover: Potential employers and insurers could plausibly search donors by DNA, and find, say, if the donor is prone to depression, craves sugar, or carries signs of genetic disease. All of these factors might dim a donor's prospects for future employment or insurance.

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