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Reality Check: How secure are at-home ancestry tests?

As the popularity of at-home DNA test kits grows, the federal government has a warning. The Federal Trade Commission advises people to remember this before sending off their DNA and financial information -- hacks happen. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

As the popularity of at-home DNA test kits grows, the federal government has a warning. The Federal Trade Commission advises people to remember this before sending off their DNA and financial information -- hacks happen.

People take a DNA sample at home and send it off to shine a light on their heritage. Nicole Whitehead's reason was simple.

"I was, basically, just curious. I didn't have anything in particular in mind. I was just curious. I was looking to try to build my family tree," said Whitehead, who did a test through Ancestry.

Jessica O'Brien wanted an answer to a frequently asked question.

"People have asked me if I was Native American, if I was Hispanic, if I was Middle Eastern, if I was Greek," said O'Brien.

She never really had an answer and takes pride in her ethnic diversity. The results weren't what she expected.

"I was like, wow. I am just a white person," O'Brien said.

Her results showed the largest percentage of her ethnicity was from the Iberian Peninsula.

Gene Kindley learned of an in interesting connection.

"My grandmother's maiden name was a Presley. So, about six generations ago, that name crossed paths with Elvis Presley's ancestors. That was kind of a surprise," Kindley said.

Those three all used Ancestry. The FTC advises people to shop for the best security and privacy policy. The companies do have differences.

Ancestry's policy says the company keeps people's DNA so it can be used for future testing. 23andMe's policy says people's DNA and saliva are destroyed after testing.

"You know, I didn't even think about that," Whitehead said.

"I was pretty ignorant to the idea that I would have to consider that," said O'Brien, who did her DNA test five years ago.

Both companies send the DNA to a third-party lab. They say those labs don't get people's names, just get a unique number, which the company uses to identify customers. The companies also tell customers they cannot guarantee they won't be hacked. That's a fear of Kindley's.

"If hackers can hack into government facilities, banking facilities, then what's to keep them from hacking into ancestry," Kindley asked.

He read the policy before doing the test and says he'd do it again. O'Brien wants to try another from a second company to see if the results match. Whitehead wasn't totally satisfied with her results.

"No, I feel like there's a lot of questions. I just feel like it was vague," Whitehead said.

To create an account with Ancestry, you must accept their terms and conditions, which include consenting to Ancestry sharing your genetic information. If you request your data to be deleted, Ancestry's policy says the company will do so within 30 days.



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