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The rise of 23andMe

Christina Leonard Online Director

Five million people in more than 48 countries use the personal genomics company 23andMe to learn about their health and ancestry through sophisticated DNA analysis. The company, founded in 2006 and now worth more than $1.7 billion, was founded by entrepreneur Anne Wojcicki, who previously worked as a healthcare investment analyst.  

Essentially, 23andMe extracts their customer’s DNA from a saliva sample and analyzes it. After purchasing the service, customers receive a saliva sampling kit from the company. The customer just has to spit into the test tube given and send their kit back to the company. Six to eight weeks after 23andMe receives the sample and the DNA is processed, the customer is given an access code to their online account, which details their genetics. From discovering unknown relatives, unique wellness and trait reports, and possible genetic health risks people may carry, 23andMe has been able to unlock once unimaginable genetic information for their clients.

However, with the ability to analyze millions of peoples genetic data that 23andMe has, there has been a lot of backlash concerning user’s privacy and safety. 23andMe announced a partnership with GlaxoSmithKline in late July 2018 which sparked controversy, as the pharmaceutical company said they will use the data from 23andMe customers to design new drugs.

As a result of this collaboration, many people have begun questioning these privacy concerns even more. Especially after the Facebook Cambridge-Analytica Data Scandal in early 2018, where Cambridge Analytica stored millions of Facebook user’s personal data without their consent to tamper in the 2016 U.S. election, many consider this partnership a breach of user’s privacies.

Psychology Teacher Mark McVean is particularly worried about how easily one’s DNA could be misused. “I’m just wary about where [23andMe] are going to take that information [and] what it ultimately is going to be used for,” he said.

McVean compares 23andMe’s ability to take information to Google and it’s recording of user data. “The equivalent is, does Google have our data? They do. And did we tell them they could have it? Probably not, specifically,” he said.“With cookies [and such] …  it just seems like there is a lot of information that we are not necessarily told.”

He explained that “even if you check the box and say that we’re comfortable with 23andMe’s policy on protecting our sensitive, personal genetic data it still could be misused or taken [advantage of].”

Despite these safety concerns, 23andMe has taken the world by storm, providing an easy and accessible way for people to learn about themselves and their genetic makeup.

Nathalia Smith (’21) decided to use 23andMe to find out more about her heritage as her grandfather is Swedish. “I just figured I’ve always viewed myself as white, but I thought it would be interesting to see if there’s anything interesting that would come up that would culturally bind me more [to a certain culture or place],” she said.

Kendal Fass (’19) first heard about 23andMe from her mother who is adopted and decided to use the company because she wanted to find out more about herself and her ancestry. Fass thinks the safety concerns are completely understandable, however, she believes that “if you really want to know … you just have to be aware of [the risks]”.

Fass, however, has decided not to use 23andMe yet as she is concerned with the impact its results could have on her, specifically the Genetic Health Risks information.

She stresses that knowing about possible diseases you carry could possibly “make you feel differently about your course of life,” she said. “You don’t want to live in fear of everything. If you know that you’re more likely for [an illness] to develop, then you’re dreading that for your whole life.”

Smith wasn’t overly worried about the concerns related to using the service. “With AI [Artificial Intelligence] improving… it can be a little scary,” she said. “But I think it’s totally worth it, to get to see … how we are all connected.”

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