National News: Pentagon warns military members DNA kits pose ‘personal and operational risks’


By Jenna McLaughlin and Zach Dorfman-,Yahoo News

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is advising members of the military not to use consumer DNA kits, saying the information collected by private companies could pose a security risk, according to a memo co-signed by the Defense Department’s top intelligence official.

A growing number of companies like 23andMe and Ancestry sell testing kits that allow buyers to get a DNA profile by sending in a cheek swab or saliva sample. The DNA results provide consumers information on their ancestry, insights into possible medical risks and can even identify previously unknown family members.

The boom in popularity of such kits has raised ethical and legal issues, since some companies have shared this data with law enforcement or sold it to third parties. The Defense Department is now expressing its own concerns about these kits.

“Exposing sensitive genetic information to outside parties poses personal and operational risks to Service members,” says the Dec. 20 memo signed by Joseph D. Kernan, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, and James N. Stewart, the assistant secretary of defense for manpower.

The memo — which says that some DNA kit companies have been targeting military personnel with discounts — appears to have been distributed widely within the Defense Department, though it has not previously been made public. The memo was obtained by Yahoo News.

“These [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,” states the memo.

The memo provides little details on how genetic profiles could endanger security, other than noting that potential “inaccuracies” in health information could pose a risk to military personnel, who are required to report medical issues. Most of the health reports provided by DNA companies typically pertain to medical risks, though, such as a predisposition to cancer, rather than diagnosing a condition.

However, the involvement of the Pentagon’s intelligence chief in the issue points to broader concerns about biometrics — like DNA, fingerprints and facial recognition — which have been crucial in helping the U.S. identify potential enemies but also expose U.S. national security personnel to identification by other countries.

U.S. intelligence officials are increasingly concerned about how DNA testing will affect their ability to operate worldwide, says a former senior intelligence official, who pointed to the rise of DNA swab tests at some international airports as one factor in a decline in CIA personnel using aliases while travelling abroad.

Erin Murphy, a professor at New York University’s School of Law, says she’s heard about concerns that a foreign government with suspicions about someone operating inside their country — like a potential spy — could use a commercial genetic database to unmask the person. “It all boils down to the same basic idea,” she says. “In a world in which a few stray cells can be used to identify a person, there is no such thing as a covert action, and no such thing as anonymity.”

One possible scenario, Murphy says, would be for someone to use genetic information to track down covert operatives involved in a high-level foreign military operation, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden, in order to extract revenge. “It’s not hard to imagine a world where people are blithely sharing information online without realizing their third cousin is a Navy SEAL, or an operative of the CIA.”

The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment.