Pentagon warns military not to use consumer DNA test kits

The Pentagon is concerned that DNA information could pose operational risks.

December 24, 2019, 1:36 PM

The Pentagon is warning its military service members that they should not use popular consumer DNA test kits because they could pose operational risks and they may not provide reliable or accurate health results.

But the two main DNA consumer kit companies are pushing back on the Pentagon's claims that their information is not secure and that their DNA results may not be reliable or accurate.

"Exposing sensitive genetic information to outside parties poses personal and operational risks to service members," according to a memo from Joseph D. Kernan, the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, and James N. Stewart, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, Performing the Duties of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.

"These DTC (Direct to Consumer) genetic tests are largely unregulated and could expose personal and genetic information, and potentially create unintended security consequences and increased risk to the joint force and mission," they said in the memo distributed last Friday to senior military and defense leaders.

"Moreover, there is increased concern in the scientific community that outside parties are exploiting the use of genetic data for questionable purposes, including mass surveillance and the ability to track individuals without their authorization or awareness," they wrote.

Yahoo News was first to report on the memo, which it also posted online.

"We want to ensure all service members are aware of the risks of Direct to Consumer (DTC) genetic testing," Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman, told ABC News. "The unintentional discovery of markers that may affect readiness could affect a service member's career, and the information from DTC genetic testing may disclose this information."

Citing concerns about the accuracy and reliability of the results provided by the tests, Robertson said that until a further assessment "it is advised that service members receive this information from a licensed professional rather than a consumer product."

Genetic testing kits provided by companies like Ancestry, 23 and Me, and others have grown in popularity in recent years, helping consumers learn about their ethnic backgrounds and genetic traits.

Ancestry says more than 15 million people have used its DNA testing, making its consumer DNA network the largest in the world and a boon to those using the DNA to help with their genealogical research.

In addition to information about genetic traits, 23 and Me says its testing can also provide information about health predisposition risks based on the presence of genetic markers for certain diseases.

Spokespersons for both companies disputed the claims made by the Pentagon about security risks to their data or that their test results were not accurate or reliable.

“All of our customers should be assured we take the utmost efforts to protect their privacy, and that the results we provide are highly accurate," said a 23 and Me spokesperson when contacted by ABC News for a response to the Pentagon memo.

"Our FDA-authorized health reports have been tested to be over 99% accurate," the company spokesperson said.

Addressing the Pentagon's security concerns, the 23 and e spokesperson also said that all of the testing is done in the United States and that no information is shared with third parties without "separate, explicit consent from our customers."

"Customers are in control of how their data is shared, and how their data is stored," the spokesperson said. "They can choose to have their sample stored at our lab, or have it destroyed. They can also download their information and close their account at any time."

Ancestry also defended its practices.

"Protecting our customers’ privacy and being good stewards of their data is Ancestry’s highest priority," said Gina Spatafore, an Ancestry spokesperson.

"Ancestry does not share customer DNA data with insurers, employers, or third-party marketers," she added. "Ancestry will also not share customer personal information with law enforcement unless compelled to by valid legal process, such as a court order or search warrant."

Spatafore said Ancestry has also worked with the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) and other genetic testing companies to develop industry-wide guidelines and best practices for the collection, protection, sharing and use of data collected by consumer genomics companies.

Earlier this month, the new owners of GEDmatch, a third-party genetic genealogy site that has helped investigators crack cases using DNA, vowed to protect users' privacy by fighting against police search warrants.