A scientist at Israeli genealogy firm MyHeritage has published a paper revealing that public genealogy databases can identify relatives – third cousins and closer – in nearly two-thirds of people of European descent.
This means that if your second cousin sent a DNA sample to MyHeritage or a company like it, that sample can be used to identify you too, especially if triangulated with other identifying information like geographic area or approximate age.
Yaniv Erlich, chief science officer at MyHeritage, estimates that as these databases continue to grow, investigators will soon have the ability to identify anyone in the US within a particular ethnicity given a sample of their DNA.
The phenomenon isn’t limited to databases built from voluntary submissions like MyHeritage. Erlich’s researchers were able to identify an anonymous woman whose genetic data was part of the 1,000 Genomes Project, a research database designed as a detailed catalogue of human genetic variation.