If You Love Your Family, Don't Give the Gift of 23andMe

Adding your family’s DNA to a startup’s massive pool of genetic information is not a decision to be taken lightly.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
November 22, 2019, 5:48pm
Sale advertised on 23andMe's website

Next week is Thanksgiving, and then right after, a bunch of stuff will go on sale, in a transparent and even celebrated ritual of buying things. But please, be extremely wary about buying the deeply discounted 23andMe DNA kits, which are half-off for all of November.

The kits seem to have become a very popular present (or at least, the 23andMe marketing department would like us to think so); we’re told they are perfect for everyone from the men in your life to your mom. But if you’re among the increasingly small pool of people who aren’t already in 23andMe’s truly huge database of genetic information, it might be a good idea to avoid involving yourself.


As the company warns, and as the capture of the Golden State Killer tells us, submitting your own DNA to the ancestry database (which is public, and subject to subpoena) essentially submits your relatives’, too. The DNA you share with blood family members is very similar. So if Uncle Rich goes HAM and gets the whole family 23andMe kits—because, hey, you never know if we might be related to somebody famous!!!—and you rightfully neglect to submit yours, it doesn’t really matter. Any of your stinky little cousins who yeets their spit to 23andMe’s ancestry tool is bringing some of your genetic data right along with them.

The kits have the potential to rustle up very real drama (“Merry Christmas! Turns out the doctor used his own sperm instead of your dad’s! :)”). And this year, the company got more serious about using its vast pool of genetic data for research. That sounds innocuous enough; research is wholesome and good, but ; 23andMe’s CEO has a Wall Street background, is charging people upwards of $80 (on sale!) to fork over their private data, and is now sitting on perhaps the most valuable pool of genetic information in the world. Cha-ching, baby!!!

In these times when everyone’s information is extremely In The Cloud, spitting into a tube like this means also making a deeply personal choice for those who share DNA with you, and potentially putting them at risk, should this big-ass data pool ever be compromised or put to use for reasons covered by the Terms of Service that you aren’t necessarily aware of. Not to be gloomy, but that feels like an inevitability; companies with lots of money generally can do whatever they want, like buy private health data, or leak information with little more than a slap on the wrist.

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