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Match This Bit to That

Users of genetic genealogy sites who have upload their genetic data might be susceptible to "genetic hacking," according to new study.

In a preprint posted to BioRxiv, Michael Edge and Graham Coop, both of the University of California, Davis, explore how someone could game these services to learn users' genotypes, including disease risk variants. In particular, they note that these sites rely on identifying long shared genomic regions to match users to potential relatives. But someone with nefarious intent could subvert that process by uploading either real or artificial sequences to piece together targets' genomes or to identify individuals with certain gene variants.

Coop notes in a statement that by using such sites, "people are giving up more information than they think they are." The researchers add that there are ways to block these attacks and that they have been in touch with the services, though Coop says the response has been "variable."

"[W]e love that people have been able to use GEDmatch and other services to connect with their biological relatives," Edge says in a tweet. "At the same time, we think it is crucial that people are aware of what is potentially being shared when they use these services."