Military leaders have been sounding the alarm about security concerns over popular mail-in genetics kits, but the Navy is now warning sailors against using the tests for other reasons.
Navy personnel should consider the unintended consequences of learning who they're related to, a new servicewide message states.
"Some genetic tests inform participants of a network of likely siblings and parents," wrote Andrew Haeuptle, director of Navy Staff. "While in most cases this is good and interesting, in some situations this new information could negatively affect your family."
In his message, Haeuptle recommended naval personnel discuss those issues with family members who are considering genetic testing.
"Thanks to social media and [publicly] available information, even if you don't participate, when one of your relatives does, unwelcome associations may be created," he said.
Nicholas Evans, a philosophy professor at University of Massachusetts Lowell who studies medical ethics, said he and his wife oppose taking direct-to-consumer genetics tests unless they have the consent of their entire families.
"It's not just you who's getting the test -- effectively everyone who is genetically related to you is, at least in part, getting the test along with you," Evans said. "And that can create some interesting problems in terms of communicating risks about genetic diseases or even coming to terms with perhaps complicated genetic relationships."
Through genetic testing, he said people have found out they're adopted, have siblings they didn't know about, or have a different father, for example. The BBC ran a story about the kits with the headline "The Christmas present that could tear your family apart." Vox had a 2014 first-person essay titled "With genetic testing, I gave my parents the gift of divorce."
Results can sometimes pose real shocks, Evans said. The military community strives for family readiness so troops aren't distracted by what's happening at home.
"If you find out while deployed that your spouse had a genetic test that gives them some kind of serious risk for a particular type of cancer or genetic disease, that might influence your [readiness] because you aren't able to be involved with them in this kind of critical time," he said.
More concerning though, Evans said, are the security risks associated with off-the-shelf DNA test kits. Anytime personal data is stored on an unsecure network, it poses risks for troops, as was the case when an interactive map popped up online in 2018 showing the running patterns of troops at an overseas base.
"We are at a point where the lack of security in modern civilian technology is really impacting the way that we think about national security," Evans said.
Haeuptle noted those concerns in his Navy-wide message, telling uniformed and civilian personnel they should avoid direct-to-consumer DNA tests because "exposing their genetic information to outside parties creates personal and operational risks."
His guidance follows similar Defense Department-wide warnings issued last month.