23andMe offers a variety of great services if you provide them with just a little DNA. Customers can find out health related information including if they are genetically predisposed to certain diseases, how healthy they are, and any diseases that they carry (1). Customers can also discover insights into their genetic makeup including where their family came from before the times of airplanes and crossing the ocean, and if their DNA can be traced back to Neanderthals (2). Along with ancestral information, 23andMe customers have the ability to find out how many DNA relatives they have around the world, and can even opt into the DNA Relatives feature, where 23andMe can identify relatives on any branch of your recent family tree and connect you to them (3). It’s the DNA Relatives feature that is causing a branding problem.
In April of 2018, the Golden State Killer was apprehended, using an opensource genealogy website called GEDMatch (4). The case had been cold since the 1970s. The DNA that was discovered at crime scenes involving the Golden State Killer, had been run through various crime DNA websites, including the Combined DNA Index System, also referred to as CODIS (5). CODIS is a database that contains STRs (Short Random Repeats) of over 16 Million crime offenders and arrestees (6). STRs can be repeated in the human genome hundreds of times in 20 different locations (7). GEDmatch on the other hand uses SNPs, single-nucleotide polymorphisms, that can match the genetic letters of the human genome up to 600,000 times, giving customers the ability to use their DNA data to track down distant relatives in their family tree and determine geographic origins (8). It’s not exactly clear how law enforcement used GEDMatch to track down the Golden State Killer, but without it the case would still be unsolved.
Notice, that GEDMatch has absolutely nothing to do with 23andMe, and that’s where the problem starts. 23andMe uses their own SNP database to determine what genetic diseases people are predisposed to having, and where their genes trace them back geographically. 23andMe has never shared their database with law enforcement, including the FBI (9). GEDMatch’s SNP database is comprised of DNA data that is voluntarily uploaded by the owner. Once the DNA Data is uploaded, GEDMatch gives its users the tools to find their ancestors (10). Genealogy companies including 23andMe and Ancestry will transfer customer DNA data into GEDMatch, but ONLY if the customer specifically requests it (11). GEDMatch is also an opensource software, allowing anyone to upload and compare their DNA data for free, only profiting when users signup to use premium features (12).
When news broke of how the Golden State Killer was caught, the public generally believed that the genealogy companies were willingly giving law enforcement access to their DNA data. The public didn’t understand that the only people to blame for this DNA data being accessible were the civilians that voluntarily uploaded them into GEDMatch. Judging from this recent Twitter sentiment analysis (Figure 1), that viewpoint has not changed.
The same sentiment has also spilled into 23andMe’s brand image. Figure 2 shows a sentiment analysis of how some consumers view 23andMe.
The capturing of an at large criminal is ultimately a good thing for society. As more and more cold cases are solved by using GEDMatch’s Database, consumers believe that 23andMe is actively supplying their private data to authorities without their consent. 23andMe’s brand would benefit from getting out in front of this problem before more potential customers start to form this negative brand image. 23andMe could interact directly with these jaded potential customers by hiring influencers to respond to these social media posts with direct links to third party articles that explain the difference between GEDMatch and 23andMe. These influencers could also provide articles detailing how 23andMe has never given any DNA Data to any authority. The third party sources would be a more authentic source, and having an undercover influencer send them out would ad another layer of authenticity. According to Peter Cassidy of SocialMediaToday.com, “60% of consumers said user-generated content (UGC) is the most authentic form of content – 3X more authentic than brand-created content” (12).
Most potential customers also do not realize the benefits of using GEDMatch’s capabilities to solve crimes. The accuracy of using GEDMatch as a crime solving tool saves the american tax payers millions of dollars. According to Sarah Zhang, “Parabon Nanolabs, the forensics company that recently uploaded DNA from 100 crime scenes to GEDmatch, charges law enforcement agencies $1,500 in lab fees plus $2,250 for its genetic-genealogy work” (13). Comparing the $3,750 cost to the millions of dollars and man hours its takes to investigate a crime traditionally, it is a no brainier to use GEDMatch’s services. All genealogy services would benefit from potential customers understanding just how cost effective and accurate the method is compared to a traditional investigations. GEDMatch, 23andMe, and other genealogy websites would greatly benefit from having an influencer share an infograph on the subject. Figure 3 is an example of one that I created, that they could use.
Ultimately it is in the best interest of 23andMe to keep the DNA data that they collect as secure and private as possible, even from authorities. There is nothing more private than the genetic blueprint that can be found in our DNA (14). Recent studies show that the global average cost of data breaches as of July 2018 is $3.86 Million (15). A data breach of any kind to 23andMe or any other genealogy DNA service would be financially catastrophic.
Even though 23andMe does not give authorities access to their DNA database, and the many benefits of solving crimes this way, there is still new legislation being developed to prevent the judicial system from using GEDMatch to solve crimes. If the authorities restricted their use of the database to solving high profile homicide and rape cases, it is likely that the majority of people would not care. One thing is for sure, the advent of genealogy companies like 23andMe has raised a gluttony of ethical concerns, which further hurts their brand when potential customers investigate their services.
Some food for thought
- What other ways do you think 23andMe can strengthen their brand image when it comes GEDMatch being used to solve crimes?
- What other ethical issues do companies like 23andMe also face that could hurt their brand?
- Do you think that legislation should be introduced to prevent authorities from using GEDMatch to solve crimes?
- How could genealogy companies like 23andMe collaborate with one another to help ease the privacy concerns that the industry faces?
(1) “What Health-Related Information Can I Learn from 23andMe?” 23andMe Customer Care, customercare.23andme.com/hc/en-us/articles/115013843028-What-health-related-information-can-I-learn-from-23andMe-.
(2,3) “What Ancestry-Related Information Can I Learn from 23andMe?” 23andMe Customer Care, customercare.23andme.com/hc/en-us/articles/115013846688-What-ancestry-related-information-can-I-learn-from-23andMe-.
(4,5,6, 7, 8, 9 , 10, 11, 13) Zhang, Sarah. “How a Tiny Website Became the Police’s Go-To Genealogy Database.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 1 June 2018, www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/06/gedmatch-police-genealogy-database/561695/.
(12) Cassidy, Peter. “Survey Finds Consumers Crave Authenticity – and User-Generated Content Delivers.” Social Media Today, 21 Nov. 2017, www.socialmediatoday.com/news/survey-finds-consumers-crave-authenticity-and-user-generated-content-deli/511360/.
(14) Rosenbaum, Eric. “5 Biggest Risks of Sharing Your DNA with Consumer Genetic-Testing Companies.” CNBC, CNBC, 16 June 2018, www.cnbc.com/2018/06/16/5-biggest-risks-of-sharing-dna-with-consumer-genetic-testing-companies.html.
(15) Sydny ShepardJul 17, 2018. “The Average Cost of a Data Breach.” Security Today, July 2018, securitytoday.com/articles/2018/07/17/the-average-cost-of-a-data-breach.aspx.