Health and Science

DNA test 23andMe sparks UK privacy concerns

How spitting in a tube can reveal your ancestry
How spitting in a tube can reveal your ancestry

Controversial Google-backed genetic testing service 23andMe – which allows users to find out about their DNA - is launching in the U.K., with the chief executive pledging that data would not be shared with the U.S. search giant.

Customers can order a £125 DNA kit to take a sample of their saliva and send it back a to a laboratory. A report is compiled and includes results of genes that could be responsible for conditions such as Cystic Fibrosis. The Califonia-based company also provides an ancestry report so you can trace your family's genetic roots.

23andMe has already whipped up a storm in the U.S, where it was banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2013 over concerns about the accuracy of the test results.

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Anne Wojcicki, CEO of 23andMe, and wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, said the company is hoping the data they collect can be anonymized and sold to researchers to discover new diseases.

Banned in US, cleared in the UK
Banned in US, cleared in the UK

"So 23andMe does partnerships with academics, with pharma companies and we take feedback from our customers about what kind of research do we want to do," Wojcicki told CNBC in a TV interview.

"We definitely then have a business model focused on enabling everybody in the world to get access to the data to make discoveries."

Selling data to Google?

The comments may raise alarm bells among privacy advocates -- particularly that because of Google is involved, their personal data could be used by other organizations and companies without their knowledge -- but Wojcicki made clear that sensitive data would not be passed on.

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"Google is an investor in us and that's it. There is a lot of technology that they have developed about analysing data. They are very helpful to us but they are a completely separate company."

In the U.S. 23andMe has hired a regulatory team and is working with the FDA to have the ban reversed.

Insurer discrimination?

As well as identifying potential medical conditions, the personal genome service could allow customers to see the genetics behind why they are a more frequent smoker, or how their body may respond to diet and exercise, according to the company.

With the ability to create such a detailed medical map of a person, concerns have been raised that insurance companies could use the data to discriminate against someone. But Wojcicki defended 23andMe's privacy record when asked if this is a possibility.

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"I think that it's going to be critical for every country to make actually make sure that there are always in place so that you cannot be discriminated against with your genome," Wojcicki said.

"One of the things that's important to 23andMe is protecting your privacy. So if you order a kit, I don't actually know that it was you that ordered that kit. So part of what we are trying to do is put the control in your hands instead of in the hands of the traditional healthcare system."

- By CNBC's Arjun Kharpal