Looks like you aren’t the only person who might have gotten freaked out by consumer DNA tests recently.
Consumer genetics testing company 23AndMe has laid off 100 employees, or 14 percent of its staff, reports CNBC. Most of the layoffs come from the operations team.
Sales in consumer DNA tests have been declining across the industry, and 23AndMe is no exception. The company’s CEO, Anne Wojcicki, says she’s not sure about the exact reason for the slump. However, she suspects concerns about privacy might play a role.
“Privacy is top of mind,” she told CNBC.
That could be because a series of news events raised concerns about what happens to our DNA after customers give it to services like Ancestry or 23AndMe.
“People are concerned about what companies like 23AndMe are doing in combination with other industry partners,” Dr. Ellen Wright Clayton, a Vanderbilt University professor who has studied consumer perceptions of genetic privacy, told Mashable. “That’s just come much more into the public’s attention in the last year or two.”
In April of 2018, investigators were able to catch the elusive Golden State Killer by comparing DNA found from old crime scenes to consumer DNA database GEDMatch. Because the criminal’s relative had uploaded their DNA to a consumer genetics service, the cops were able to identify a member of their family as their suspect.
Most people aren’t criminals, let alone serial killers. However, in the wake of the case, there’s been a feeling in the air that there was something alarming about cops trawling a DNA database we all unwittingly gave them access to.
Stories such as those about unwanted family reunions, pharmaceutical drug development, and the discovery of surprising relatives and family tumult have also led to a growing unease with the services.
“I think the concern is sort of inchoate, but some of it is quite justifiable,” Clayton said. “23andMe has been quite open about what they’re doing with data. I just think people haven’t been paying that much attention the way they are now.”
Wojcicki also said that financial concerns of recession could play a role in the declining sales of DNA tests. But Clayton thinks that, perhaps, they’ve just hit a customer ceiling. She notes that, as of one year ago, 27 million people had partaken in the tests. For now, maybe that was everyone who wanted to do it.
People will likely always have a curiosity (that translates to cash) about where their families come from. But companies like 23AndMe are going to have to work harder to show that that curiosity doesn’t lead to creepy unintended consequences.