Ancestry should not be subject to privacy restraints

By Razib Khan | June 17, 2013 3:21 am

Credit: Robert Payne

In my earlier post on Prince William’s mtDNA lineage, and its possible Indian provenance, I didn’t address the issue of genetic privacy in much detail. The discussion is relevant in this case because BritainsDNA inferred his lineage by looking at distant relatives. Assuming that the biological pedigree we have for William is correct, he must share the mtDNA of his relatives who descend in an unbroken line from a common female ancestor.

A concern about the breach of privacy emerged almost immediately. Though I have serious reservations about the sensationalism which BritainsDNA has engaged in, I think it is totally legitimate of them to infer William’s ancestry in the fashion they did. First, Prince William is a public person, and in direct line to the throne of the United Kingdom. Though some of the spin may be distasteful, remember that this is a person who is where he is because of his ancestry. Second, anyone who performs genealogical research is exposing the information of family members, often without their consent. If William’s mtDNA haplogroup was known to be pathogenic than the case for withholding the information from the public seems straightforward. As it is all that was uncovered was relatively banal, that William may have a South Asian ancestress. There’s a lot of information about me that I’d rather not others know first, but that’s not how the world works. In the grand scheme of things this just isn’t a big deal, and we should focus on the more concrete problem of public understanding of science, and long term issues in regards to genetic privacy more generally.

Addendum: I am aware of concerns in regards to paternity. On the whole I generally think in most situations this is probably information that is going to come out in any case, and so it wouldn’t hurt for it to emerge earlier. Additionally, in the cases of historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson’s presumed line of descent there were widely diverging views among the white descendants as to whether they should cooperate because of the possible moral implications. I suspect most would agree it is better to know this information, even though it implied that line of putative black Jefferson descendants may have paternity misassignment in their lineage. Finally, obviously these issues are far diminished in the case of mtDNA, since maternity is guaranteed. Though one never knows if someone who was adopted was never told of his reality.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Genetics
MORE ABOUT: Prince William

Comments (9)

  1. Sandgroper

    “only William can say whether the Anglo-Indian relationship plays to his advantage”

    Apart from an overwhelming feeling of ‘who the hell cares?’, I really think this is going far beyond what is sensible or has any meaning in ethical terms – there is no ‘Anglo-Indian relationship’ in this case. I have as much North African ancestry as he has South Asian ancestry – apart from the minor novelty for me of just knowing that and the trivial fun of trying to figure out how it happened, I would be exceedingly surprised if that knowledge ever had any influence on my life or my descendants lives in any way whatever. If William even tried to use this remote, trivial connection to some advantage I’d be highly critical – it would be a pretty cynical exercise on his part if he did.

    On the medical side, I can see at least some hypothetical concerns about data privacy – few people would be comfortable with their personal medical information being made public, especially if it might have disadvantageous implications for their offspring, but that’s not what Anna Middleton was discussing.

    I was on the verge of saying how ridiculous I find the whole genealogy thing in the UK, until I reminded myself of how many people in America claim descent from Pocahontas and what an apparently contentious issue that has been. As it happens, Pocahontas is one of my favourite historical characters, for reasons I probably can’t elucidate succinctly, it just appeals to me that someone like her reached across the huge cultural gulf that she did, but in terms of the actual significance of descent among living people? Trivial vanishing to zero.

    • BobSykes

      Who the hell cares? Well, what if DNA shows he is not a legitimate heir?

      • Sandgroper

        I’m already facing the preposterous position that some time in the future I will be expected to profess allegiance to this man as my king (something I have no intention of doing). If he were not a legitimate heir, I would consider I have an absolute constitutional right to know that, which in his case overrides his right to keep that private. And I would imagine a lot of people would care about it.

        Before his mother was permitted to marry into the royal family they had her inspected by medical practitioners to confirm that she was a virgin and made a public pronouncement on the fact – how private was that?

        But that’s not what is being discussed, which is whether a trivial amount of ancestry on his maternal line from an individual whose identity is already very widely held common knowledge and has been since before his mother was married was Armenian or Indian. Spot the difference.

  2. George Jones

    I take the contrarian position to “Ancestry should not be subject to privacy restraints” and tend to lean toward the Krimsky position:

    ” Your DNA is like your house, it’s as private as you can get,” said Sheldon Krimsky, professor of urban and environmental policy at Tufts University and author of the book “Genetic Justice.” “It has information about you, your family, your siblings.” “I think individuals, if given an understanding of what’s in their DNA, would have an EXPRESSED EXPECTATION OF PRIVACY.”

    Genetic Privacy is a dual edged sword blade when it comes to personal DNA which can also be obtained if it is abandoned or discarded or the proper consents are absent. One edge of the sword blade deals with the tamer ancestry and lineage DNA story. The other edge of the blade can cut far deeper and partially reveal ones health and medical DNA story.

    A case in point is for Mr. Al C. Kalmbach (1910–1981) who died of Parkinson’s disease.

    Let’s assume that DTC DNA Testing was widely available in the 1970s and 1980s. If one of Kalmbach’s competitors wished to scoop Mr. Kalmbach in an egregious and unethical manner it could have easily done so by collecting his DNA from the saliva on a return survey envelope sent to him or retrieved his DNA from curbside trash or even a discarded water bottle. A story could have then been circulated that his death was likely to come from Parkinson’s Disease or some other disease detected in his DNA.

    James Watson did not reveal all of his DNA secrets when he had his DNA analyzed.

    It was said: “In the grand scheme of things this just isn’t a big deal …,” Again, I take the opposite position and say it is a big deal and when one has some access to DNA analysis we never know which blade is going to do more harm.

  3. razibkhan

    your comments are of low quality, improve or i’m not letting them through the future.

    1) i specifically stated that there are strong reasons to not allow for public dissemination of medical information. therefore, you either do not read, or do not care what is written

    2) ‘biological information’ is so broad as to be vacuous. phenotypic information can give biological information. i’m rather sure that william is of the derived variant for slc24a5, in the homozygote state….

  4. Anthony_A

    Regarding the paternity/adoption issue: What expectations of privacy do dead people have? What rights should I have to hide whether my (now deceased) grandmother was the biological daughter of her nominal father?

    (That’s hypothetical, at least in my case.)

  5. Paul Conroy

    It would be interesting to see what BritainsDNA can say about Prince William’s paternity, as their Y-DNA test only tests 15,000 SNP’s?! Compare that to the leader in Y-DNA testing, Full Genomes Corp – – who test 25,000,000 SNP’s


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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