A hand holding a test tube in front of a colorful background.

The Risks of Home DNA Tests for Military Personnel

Home DNA Testing Puts Your Privacy and Security at Risk


In recent years, DNA test kits have become convenient for individuals to explore their genetic heritage and potential health risks. However, for military members, using these tests comes with a unique set of risks and concerns. Pentagon leadership has cautioned military personnel against taking mail-in home DNA tests, citing security risks, unreliability, and potential negative impacts on their careers. In this post, we will delve into the top 8 risks you may face when using home DNA tests and explore the implications of these risks in a military context.

Direct-to-Consumer Home DNA Tests: It’s Cool, Fun, and Ridiculously Dangerous

Sergeant First Class Mitch Fetherstonhaugh had always been interested in his ancestry, so when he saw an advertisement for a home DNA test that promised detailed insights into his ethnic background, he was intrigued. Despite the military’s strict guidance against using such services due to the potential risks of exposing personal data, the temptation to learn more about his heritage was too strong to resist. He ordered a kit, swabbed his cheek, and sent off the sample. Weeks later, the results arrived, revealing a complex tapestry of lineages that spanned several continents; he was enthralled by the connections to histories he’d never known. The excitement, however, was short-lived.

Rumors started circulating within the intelligence community about a massive data breach affecting several genetic testing companies. The breach reportedly exposed sensitive personal information, including genetic profiles of military personnel, potentially accessible to hostile entities. Mitch’s heart sank as he realized the implications. He had not only put his own identity at risk but also potentially jeopardized national security and the safety of his fellow soldiers. The weight of his decision bore down on him as he contemplated the next steps: reporting the incident to his superiors and facing the consequences of violating military regulations. The road ahead would involve a complex tangle of damage control measures and personal accountability as Mitch and his unit braced for the fallout of this unintended disclosure.

While our scenario serves as a simply intervention, there are real world repercussion. And, an internal memorandum from Pentagon officials has advised members of the military to refrain from using mail-in genetic testing services. The communication cautions that these tests pose threats to security, lack reliability, and have the potential to harm the careers of those in service. While the memo does not single out specific DNA testing firms, it broadly recommends against the purchase of ancestry and health testing kits that are marketed using military discounts and incentives.

SOURCE: DOD memo on DNA testing by Sharon Weinberger on Scribd.

What Are the Risks of Security Breaches and Data Vulnerability from Genetic Testing?

Military personnel often hold sensitive positions and have access to classified information. How do home DNA tests pose a risk to the security of this information?

As a service member, you operate in environments where security and operational secrecy are paramount. Using home DNA test kits poses a unique risk to your data security and, by extension, can have broader implications for military operational integrity. When you submit your genetic material to a commercial entity, you entrust them with sensitive information that unauthorized parties could access. We are using the term ‘trust’ very loosely. There is a risk of data breaches, where companies like 23andMe can expose your genetic information. Bad actors can exploit it maliciously, such as creating targeted biological agents, attempting extortion, or identity theft.

Furthermore, the data obtained from your DNA test kit could inadvertently reveal information about your health predispositions or other personal attributes that an enemy can use against you or the military’s interests. The potential for adversaries to craft a detailed profile of military personnel based on genetic information adds another layer of risk. It’s crucial to recognize that once your DNA is out there, reclaiming that privacy is nearly impossible. As a result, you must weigh the desire for ancestral knowledge or health insights against the possibility of compromising not just your security but that of your unit and nation.

Genetic Privacy and Confidentiality Concerns

As a service member, protecting your genetic information is a matter of personal and national security. Home DNA tests, while offering valuable insights into ancestry and health, raise serious privacy concerns for individuals in the military like yourself. When you send your saliva sample to a commercial DNA testing company, your genetic blueprint becomes part of a database vulnerable to hacking, unauthorized access, or misuse. The confidentiality of your genetic testing is not guaranteed, and the potential for it to fall into the wrong hands could have significant implications.

Your genetic information can reveal much more than just your ethnic background—it can predict potential health issues, identify familial connections, and even be used to track you or your relatives. In the context of military service, where operational security is a top priority, adversaries can exploit such information by targeting specific individuals, engaging in blackmail, or gathering intelligence that may put missions at risk. You need to be aware of these risks and exercise caution before deciding to use home DNA testing services, as the long-term ramifications of exposing your genetic data could extend far beyond personal curiosity.

Genetic testing provides evidence by analyzing a DNA sample, often conducted through convenient home DNA tests.

Potential Impact on Military Careers

Military members are subject to strict medical and fitness standards. How could the results of a home DNA test potentially impact their military careers, including deployment opportunities and advancement within the ranks?

How could the results of a home DNA test potentially impact military careers? Soldiers are subject to stringent medical and fitness standards, and the results of a home DNA test could significantly impact their careers, including deployment opportunities and advancement within the ranks. By uncovering genetic predispositions to specific health conditions, these tests could lead to increased scrutiny from military medical authorities, potentially affecting deployment eligibility or even leading to reassignment. Additionally, the revelation of certain genetic traits or predispositions could impact an individual’s prospects for advancement within the military, potentially raising concerns about their long-term fitness for service. Before proceeding, you must carefully consider the potential implications of home DNA testing on your career.

Lack of Regulatory Oversight and Quality Control

Unlike medical tests conducted in a clinical setting, home DNA tests are not subject to the same level of regulatory oversight. What are the implications of this lack of oversight for service members?

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing has revolutionized how people access information about their genetic makeup. By bypassing healthcare providers, these tests offer individuals a quick and easy means to gain insights into their ancestry, potential health risks, and genetic traits. Companies market these kits with the allure of personalized health data that can inform lifestyle choices and health management. However, this accessibility has significant public health implications due to the lack of comprehensive regulatory oversight and quality control.

As early as 2010, the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations reviewed a report, Direct-To-Consumer Genetic Testing and The Consequences to The Public Health, which became one of the earliest conversations regarding the dangers and risks of DTC DNA testing. There one member argued, “greater Food and Drug Administration regulation of the results is needed (Committee on Energy and Commerce 2010).”

23andMe, another company testifying today, offers these enticements to the potential consumer of its genetic testing kits: Quote, ‘‘Take charge of your health. Live well at any age,’’ end quote. ‘‘Let your DNA help you plan for the important things in life.’’

Henry A. Waxman, Representative, State of California

The issue with the current sales strategies is the ambiguity surrounding the practical application of groundbreaking genetic research in enhancing and personalizing healthcare. Current scientific consensus does not robustly connect genetic markers with numerous particular diseases. Although unraveling the mysteries of human DNA might one day lead to treatments for numerous grave conditions, companies must exercise caution to avoid exaggerating the capabilities of their products to consumers. Furthermore, any claims a company makes about the benefits of its product on an individual’s health should bring the company under the purview of all relevant public health legislations and standards (Committee on Energy and Commerce 2010).

The absence of stringent regulation for DTC genetic testing has raised concerns about the accuracy and interpretation of test results. Without the necessary oversight, there is a risk of inconsistent quality among different providers, leading to consumers receiving inaccurate or misleading information about their health. This misinformation can have serious consequences, such as unwarranted anxiety over false positive results or false security from false negatives. Moreover, the lack of professional guidance in interpreting these results can result in individuals making uninformed decisions about their health, such as changing medication or altering treatment plans without consulting a healthcare provider. Third parties amplify the consequences for public health with the potential misuse of genetic information by third parties. Without robust privacy protections, there are concerns about how insurers, employers, and other entities may use genetic data, which could lead to discrimination. Furthermore, we cannot discount the possibility of psychological harm as soldiers grapple with sensitive information about their predisposition to serious diseases without proper counseling. The need for a more structured regulatory framework is evident; it would ensure that DTC genetic testing companies provide accurate, clinically valid results and protect consumers from the misuse of their genetic data.

Home DNA Tests and Genetic Discrimination and GINA Exemptions

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) offers protection against genetic discrimination in employment and health insurance, but its provisions do not apply to military personnel. How does this exemption from GINA impact service members?

As you consider taking a home DNA test, it’s essential to understand the potential impact this decision could have on your military career. While civilian legislation such as the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) offers protections against genetic discrimination in employment and health insurance, these protections do not extend to you as a service member. If your DNA test results reveal certain genetic predispositions or health conditions, that information could influence decisions regarding your deployment opportunities and advancement within the ranks. For instance, if your DNA test uncovers a genetic marker for a health condition that may affect your ability to serve, this could determine whether the Army considers you fit for specific deployments or specialized roles. Similarly, the revelation of a hereditary condition might affect your eligibility for promotions or responsibilities, especially if the condition could compromise your performance or the safety of others in high-stress or physically demanding situations. In a profession where medical readiness plays a crucial role in career progression, genetic information obtained from home DNA tests could inadvertently become a barrier to your professional advancement within the military. It’s vital to weigh these potential outcomes before submitting your genetic material for analysis.

Compromised Ancestry and Lineage Security

Understanding one’s ancestry and lineage can have cultural and emotional significance for soldiers. How might home DNA tests compromise the security and accuracy of this information?

When you take a home DNA test to learn about your ancestry and lineage, you trust the testing company’s ability to protect and accurately analyze your genetic data. However, enemies can compromise the security of this sensitive information if the company’s database is vulnerable to cyberattacks or unauthorized access. Third parties can expose and misuse your DNA data, leading to privacy intrusions for you and your extended family, as genetic data is inherently familial.

Additionally, the accuracy of these tests’ ancestry and lineage information can be variable. These assessments compare your genetic markers to those in the company’s database, which may not represent the full spectrum of human genetic diversity. As databases grow and reference panels become more inclusive, interpretations of genetic data can change. More data points mean that the results you receive today might be subject to revisions or updates in the future, raising questions about the reliability of the ancestry information provided. It’s essential to approach these tests with an understanding of their limitations and realize that they may not offer a complete or immutable picture of your heritage.

Here are a few known DNA testing breaches that occurred in the past few years:

  • 2018: MyHeritage, an Israel-based DNA testing service, reported a security breach in which the email addresses and hashed passwords of over 92 million users” were compromised. They reported no one had come forward claiming access to DNA data or passwords (Nakutavičiūtė 2018).
  • 2020: GEDmatch, a genealogy site used for DNA analysis and matching, experienced a privacy breach where user permissions were altered without consent via a loophole, potentially allowing law enforcement access to additional user profiles (Smith 2023).
  • 2020: Ancestry.com reported a data breach after a user database containing emails, usernames, and passwords was misconfigured and left publicly accessible on a third-party server. However, this incident did not involve the leak of genetic data.
  • 2023: 23andMe reported an anonymous hacker compromised the data of approximately 69 million customers (23andMe Inc. 2023). The compromised data included users’ ancestry and health-related information based on genetic profiles. The hacker directly accessed the accounts of 14,000 customers but was able to access information on millions more through users who chose to share their genetic information with others. The exposure of this information could have concerning ramifications, as providers and medical companies typically protect health information under HIPAA. Still, some loopholes allow insurers to deny coverage based on genetic information (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered 2021).

Please note that this is not an exhaustive list and only includes some of the incidents that companies self-reported up to the date we published this article. You should consult the latest news sources or official statements from the companies involved for the most recent and comprehensive information.

The risks associated with home DNA testing for military personnel are significant and must be carefully considered. Pentagon leadership has urged military personnel to avoid mail-in DNA tests due to potential security breaches, unreliability, and the potential negative impact on their careers.

Possible Impact on Military Family Members

The implications of home DNA testing extend beyond the service member to their family members. How might the results of a DNA test affect the privacy and well-being of military families?

When you engage in a home DNA test as a service member, the ramifications extend beyond your data, including your family’s privacy and well-being. The genetic information gleaned from these tests is not isolated to you alone—it encompasses genetic markers shared among your relatives. If a company discloses the results or they fall into the wrong hands,  the privacy of your entire family is at risk. Information about potential hereditary health issues or other sensitive data could become public knowledge or be used for nefarious purposes, such as identity theft or even for targeting by those with malicious intent against military personnel.

Moreover, the knowledge of certain genetic risks could create psychological stress or anxiety within your family, impacting overall well-being. Discoveries about health predispositions or unexpected familial relations can lead to significant emotional strain. In addition, familial discrimination is potential if this information becomes known in social or professional circles, affecting not just your career options but also those of your family members. As a soldier, where support and resilience are paramount, it is essential to consider the broader implications of a seemingly personal decision like taking a DNA test. Your family’s privacy and emotional health are valuable assets that need protection just as much as any other aspect of your life in service.

What legal and ethical considerations should military personnel consider before opting for a home DNA test, considering the unique challenges and responsibilities associated with their service?

Before you, as a military service member, decide to pursue a home DNA test, it’s crucial to consider both the legal and ethical aspects unique to your profession. Legally, you should be aware that third parties could access the information you provide to DNA testing companies if the company’s data policies allow it or in case of a data breach. Unlike civilians, military personnel are not covered by the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), which means that your genetic information could theoretically influence your military career prospects or insurance considerations without legal repercussions (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission 2008).

Ethically, you are responsible for safeguarding your privacy and the security of your unit and mission. Any personal data that adversaries could exploit poses a risk. Therefore, it is essential that you carefully scrutinize the privacy policies of any DNA testing service to understand how your genetic data might be used, shared, or protected. Reflect on how the potential disclosure of this information could impact operational security or leveraged against you and your colleagues in ways that might compromise mission effectiveness or safety.

Given the sensitive nature of military roles and the potential for genetic information to reveal vulnerabilities, you should weigh these considerations heavily. Your decision should align with safeguarding both your future in the service and the broader security concerns inherent to military operations. Proceed with caution and consider seeking guidance from legal or military ethics advisors to fully understand the possible implications of undergoing genetic testing.

Understanding the Implications for National Security

Bad news: 7 million people conned themselves out of privacy. And they paid for the privilege. Good news: only 2% of the United States are foolish enough to willingly give up their genetic material. Understand your genetic information is a commodity that, while entertaining, is more valuable to other companies. Like Facebook selling your data points (photo metadata, location, relationships, employment, location, emails, phone numbers, device data, etc.), so are the genetic companies letting you supply your genetic lineage, highlighting your medical issues to health insurance companies, and providing bad actors with in-depth knowledge on basically everything.

Conclusion: Equipping Soldiers and Their Families for the DNA Testing Dilemma

As soldiers weigh the decision to explore their genetic heritage through home DNA testing, they must consider the multifaceted risks and implications that these tests may pose. From security vulnerabilities to potential impacts on military careers and genetic privacy, home DNA tests require careful consideration within the context of military service. Pentagon leadership’s cautionary stance serves as a reminder of the complex and far-reaching consequences these tests may entail for service members and their families. Ultimately, informed decision-making and awareness of the risks are essential for soldiers and their families navigating the landscape of home DNA testing.

Sources / Credit

Similar Posts