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Internet, DNA trail may allow for stealing of identities, privacy breaches

A group of scientists have released a study that identified 50 men who had previously donated DNA anonymously. The study, which was published in the journal Science, has sparked controversy over whether anonymous donations are really hidden from the public.

The DNA that was analyzed in this study belonged to 50 men who were told that identifying information would not be revealed, but that their identities may be revealed in future studies. All of the donors that were identified had taken place in the Thousand Genomes Project.

The Thousand Genomes Project, which was led by the Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research in Massachusetts, collected DNA samples from 1,000 people from around the world all with different ethnic backgrounds.

The scientists involved in the identity revelation found special markers on the Y chromosome using a new computer algorithm. The researchers then used the DNA information to search genealogy databases where they match the DNA with the surnames of the men.

After obtaining the last names of the men, the researchers used obituaries, family trees, and other sources of information to pinpoint which men had donated their DNA to the project. Ultimately, the scientists were able to find 50 of the people who had donated their DNA to the Thousand Genomes Project out of almost 7 billion people in the world.

Yaniv Erlich, a geneticist who worked on the study at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research said the study was not conducted to create controversy.

“Our last intention is to push these resources behind some firewall,” he said. “We are in favor of public data sharing, but we need to think about how it could be misused and describe that correctly to people.”

Despite those intentions, the publication of this study has sparked a great deal of controversy over remained anonymous after donating your DNA. The study showed that if there is any information about even the most distant family member, your identity will not be safe if you have donated DNA.

The main cause for concern is how much DNA can reveal about a person. DNA can be used to predict a person’s likelihood of developing many diseases. Some are worried that employers and insurance agency could use the DNA information to learn about this and use it against applicants.

The new study in Science is not the first to spark the DNA debate. Back in 2008, a scientist was able to find a donor by studying the genetic information in his donated DNA. Since then, the National Institutes of Health and the Welcome Trust have placed more stringent laws on DNA donations, making the donors’ identities safer. This new study questions whether or not these laws should be made even more strict.