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Locking the door on big-data risks to privacy

Back doorUntil this week, you could have hacked into your rich Uncle Al’s account at a popular family tree website, downloaded his genome and then gotten your geneticist cousin, Todd, to help you find out if Al had a disease that could hopefully lead to an early and lucrative death. Thanks to a pair of researchers here, you won't be able to do that.

Suyash Shringarpure, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in genetics, and Carlos Bustamante, PhD, a professor of genetics, realized that an unnoticed back door to a network of genomic data sets was capable of revealing more about a person's health than anyone would like. But thanks to the two men’s work, that back door will soon be locked tight.

In a new paper, published yesterday in The American Journal of Human Genetics, the researchers demonstrate both how someone might extract personal information from a major network of disease databases and how to prevent that from happening. As I explain in my story:

The Beacon Project has the potential to be enormously valuable to future genetic research... In their paper, the Stanford researchers suggest various approaches for making the information more secure, including banning anonymous researchers from querying the beacons; merging data sets to make it harder to identify the exact source of the data; requiring that users be approved; and limiting access in a beacon to a smaller region of the genome.

Their paper also bears importantly on the larger question of how to analyze mixtures of genomes, such as those from different people at a crime scene or the many different species of microbes in a person’s microbiome.

Previously: A conversation about the benefits and limitations of direct-to-consumer genetic tests
Image - of Back Door, Cliff Cottage watercolor painting - by Artistically

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