1. Evolutionary Biology
  2. Genetics and Genomics
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Attacks on genetic privacy via uploads to genealogical databases

  1. Michael D Edge  Is a corresponding author
  2. Graham Coop  Is a corresponding author
  1. University of California, Davis, United States
Research Article
  • Cited 4
  • Views 3,266
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Cite this article as: eLife 2020;9:e51810 doi: 10.7554/eLife.51810


Direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetics services are increasingly popular, with tens of millions of customers. Several DTC genealogy services allow users to upload genetic data to search for relatives, identified as people with genomes that share identical by state (IBS) regions. Here, we describe methods by which an adversary can learn database genotypes by uploading multiple datasets. For example, an adversary who uploads approximately 900 genomes could recover at least one allele at SNP sites across up to 82% of the genome of a median person of European ancestries. In databases that detect IBS segments using unphased genotypes, approximately 100 falsified uploads can reveal enough genetic information to allow genome-wide genetic imputation. We provide a proof-of-concept demonstration in the GEDmatch database, and we suggest countermeasures that will prevent the exploits we describe.

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Author details

  1. Michael D Edge

    Center for Population Biology, University of California, Davis, Davis, United States
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    No competing interests declared.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0001-8773-2906
  2. Graham Coop

    Center for Population Biology, University of California, Davis, Davis, United States
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    Graham Coop, Reviewing editor, eLife.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0001-8431-0302


National Institutes of Health (GM108779)

  • Graham Coop

National Institutes of Health (GM130050)

  • Michael D Edge

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.

Reviewing Editor

  1. Magnus Nordborg, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria

Publication history

  1. Received: September 12, 2019
  2. Accepted: December 23, 2019
  3. Accepted Manuscript published: January 7, 2020 (version 1)
  4. Version of Record published: January 30, 2020 (version 2)


© 2020, Edge & Coop

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


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Further reading

  1. If you've uploaded your DNA on genealogy databases, it may be at risk.

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    2. Genetics and Genomics
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