The Business of Mapping and Knowing You

  • 2019-09-06
  • Monica Wilson

If you live in the Baltic states, there is a fair chance you will describe yourself as Latvian, Lithuanian or Estonian, or perhaps Russian. You might, of course, see a wider pan-European identity, or you might look inwardly and consider yourself a Samogitian first. But as a citizen of a Baltic country, there is every chance that your background is also mixed in with Moldovan, Polish, Finnish, Belarussian, Chuvash, German and a myriad of other ethnicities.

The thing is knowing who we are and where we come from has become a massive global business. Today, all you need is a bit of your saliva and the means to make a small payment, and you can find out a huge amount of data about your genealogical background. It has become almost a fashion statement to learn about these things. In the United States, for example, more tests were done in 2018 than previous years combined.

But is all what it seems? Studies have shown that the results from different DNA testing companies can vary. A set of identical twins, for instance, can get different results from the same companies. Much of this is explained on the companies’ websites, basically suggesting that it’s within a margin of error. But most DNA testing is said to be around 99% accurate. So, you might not find out exactly how much Galindian ancestry you have, but they can probably tell that it exists somewhere.

Data has become major commodity

However, major DNA testing companies have been in the headlines for other reasons; namely, for selling the information acquired to other companies. There have been criticisms levelled at 23andMe for giving your information to Big Pharma in the United States. The idea is that the information is used for research and development by pharmaceutical companies, and you can see the logic in that, but where profits are made there is always scepticism.

Indeed, creating these databases has a somewhat moral dilemma. Most people would be happy, for example, to learn that law enforcement had accessed the DNA database of a private company to help catch a wanted criminal. But where is the line drawn? Should they be used for petty crimes? Should they be used to deport migrants? It is a tough question.

Many options available

The use of our data – both genealogical and otherwise– has become a hot button topic. If you are interested in learning your family tree, we would suggest you first to compare the different companies, their policies (not all companies will sell your information, and opt outs are available) and other options like historical newspaper archive. Indeed, it’s possible to learn much about your background without even doing a DNA test.

If you do a DNA test for one of these companies, should you be worried? Probably not. The use of data by private companies really doesn’t bother the average consumer. In fact, it’s almost a sensationalist news story. In general, people are happy to know that Amazon are targeting them with a specific type of product because it reflects their browsing history. Is there truly much difference when it comes to your genetic make-up?

Of course, this is a question of personal freedom. Your privacy is your right and not a privilege. Learning about your family and lineage can be deeply rewarding. So, pursue it to find out more. But it’s best to a bit of research on the companies first to ensure that you are happy with what they will do with your information.