Anne Wojcicki

Anne Wojcicki, Co-Founder & CEO, 23andMe. (Photo Credit: Makers)

23andMe is hoping to donate some of their DTC DNA tests to the children and parents separated at the United States-Mexico border to help reunite families. The enactment of the ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy by the US Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice has led to more than 2,300 migrant families being separated; now that the Administration has vowed to help bring families back together, the DNA testing company is offering their support.

The plan was first announced by Co-Founder and CEO of 23andMe, Anne Wojcicki, on Twitter.

“To help reconnect parents and children, we intend to offer our genetic testing services through non-profit legal aid organizations representing these families,” said a spokesperson from 23andMe on Saturday. “We are well aware that genetic data contains highly personal information and we want to ensure that it is handled confidentially and with the consent of anyone tested. Providing our testing through legal services ensures attorneys of the families can protect their privacy by only using this data to assist in reunification efforts. It’s incredible to see the community come together to help bring these families back together.”

Despite these assurances, however, various groups have voiced their concerns that this plan will lead to vulnerable people having their personal data put at risk. In the immediate aftermath of the original tweet, alongside the swell of support, there was also a number of individuals criticising the risks of this approach.

As well as the potential threat to data security, some people pointed out that some of those separated may not actually be close blood relatives, or even relatives at all. In those cases, DNA testing would be of no help in bringing families back together.

In deference to these ethical and practical concerns, one of the primary organisations helping detained families, RAICES Texas, has announced their refusal of 23andMe’s offer.

“These are already very vulnerable communities, and this would potentially put their private information at risk,” said Jennifer Falcon, Communications Director at RAICES. “Essentially we’re solving one violation of their civil rights basically with another.”

Instead, the company is arguing for better systems to be put in place that allow for detainees to be tracked once they enter into the system. In this way, the records of parents and children could be much more easily traced and families could be reunited very simply.

“I think we need to be cautious of trying to make quick fixes because families being separated by this system is not a new thing,” said Falcon. “While we are all talking about this right now, families often get separated by the shuffle of the immigration system, and the current administration is just muddying this process even further by constantly changing the way that they’re doing things.”