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Noah Feldman

Elizabeth Warren and the Death of Genetic Privacy

Cheap DNA testing is changing cultural expectations, and big data is ready to reveal all.

Nevertheless, the DNA persisted.

Nevertheless, the DNA persisted.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

In theory, taking a DNA test to reveal your ancestry is optional. But it’s on its way to becoming obligatory. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren announced Monday that she had submitted her DNA to ascertain that she does in fact have Native American ancestry — after President Donald Trump had taunted her by saying he would throw a testing kit at her. For those of us not in national politics, a study in the journal Science last week claimed that within a few years, it will be possible to identify some 90 percent of white Americans by using genetic databases that include their cousins. Even if you don’t take the test yourself, someone has taken it for you.

The takeaway from these developments is simple: Genetic privacy is well on its way to becoming obsolete, thanks to the voluntary use of cheap DNA testing technology and the astonishing power of statistics. These factors are changing our social norms and expectations. The only thing that could potentially preserve genetic privacy now would be strict government regulation. That’s pretty unlikely, and even if it does come, it might not be enough to change cultural trends.