Gymrek M, McGuire AL, Golan D, Halperin E, & Erlich Y (2013). Identifying personal genomes by surname inference. Science (New York, N.Y.), 339 (6117), 321-4 PMID: 23329047
For most of us, David Golann became a household name when CNN caught him heroically saving the life of a terrified rat stuck in New York City traffic. (“I just sort of know what it’s like to be pretty scared.”) So it was not surprising this week when several thousand fans wrote in to ask if this was the same David Golan who appears as third author on this crotch-kickin’ Pape which burst forth onto the earth-realm last week. To which we reply: thank you for writing, but, no, these two men spell their names differently.
But on the topic of last names, there are now manyservices that allow folks to try to identify the last name of their biological father via DNA testing. For these sites, you send in some DNA, and they examine sequences on the Y-chromosome (which are inherited only from your father), and then they look for the closest match in their big ol’ sequence databases. While they probably don’t have your father himself in their database, they are likely to have several distant patrilinear relatives, and by analyzing those names, they can hypothesize the likely last name of your father, and apparently with pretty good success.
What the Foot Clan-esque authors of this pape realized is that these publically available databases allow hackers to identify the names of the “anonymous” genomic databases that are increasingly available on the internet. The basic algorithm is: submit the Y-chromosome data from these supposedly anonymous genomes to the paternity websites, which gives you the most likely last names. At this point, you’ve narrowed it down to ~40,000 individuals. Then, parse through these candidates using two other publically available pieces of information (D.O.B. and State of residence), which typically narrows it down to about 12 males. At which point, you are fucked.
Basically, these dudes are like Robert Redford’s gang in Sneakers: they hacked the system not to do harm, but to show us the system’s weakness. I mean, it only works on males and it doesn’t work all the time, but it’s still NASTY!!!