Article: Routes for breaching and protecting genetic privacy

A draft version of an article by Yaniv Erlich and Arvind Narayanan, “Routes for breaching and protecting genetic privacy,” has been uploaded by the authors to Dropbox, where you can download and read it. From the paper:


We are entering the era of ubiquitous genetic information for research, clinical care, and personal curiosity. Sharing these datasets is vital for rapid progress in understanding the genetic basis of human diseases. However, one growing concern is the ability to protect the genetic privacy of the data originators. Here, we technically map threats to genetic privacy and discuss potential mitigation strategies for privacy-preserving dissemination of genetic data.


  • Broad data dissemination is essential for advancements in genetics, but also brings to light concerns regarding privacy.
  • Privacy breaching techniques work by cross-referencing two or more pieces of information to gain new, potentially undesirable knowledge on individuals or their families.
  • Broadly speaking, the main routes to breach privacy are identity tracing, attribute disclosure, and completion of sensitive DNA information.
  • Identity tracing exploits quasi-identifiers in the DNA data or metadata to uncover the identity of an unknown genetic dataset.
  • Attribute disclosure techniques work on known DNA datasets. They use the DNA information to link the identity of a person with a sensitive phenotype.
  • Completion techniques also work on known DNA data. They try to uncover sensitive genomic areas that were masked to protect the participant.
  • In the last few years, we have witnessed a rapid growth in the range of techniques and tools to conduct these privacy-breaching attacks. Currently, most of the techniques are beyond the reach of the general public, but can be executed by trained persons with varying degrees of effort.
  • There is considerable debate regarding risk management. One camp supports a pragmatic, ad-hoc approach of privacy by obscurity and the other supports a systematic, mathematically-backed approach of privacy by design.
  • Privacy by design algorithms include access control, differential privacy, and cryptographic techniques. So far, data custodians of genetic databases mainly adopted access control as a mitigation strategy.
  • New developments in cryptographic techniques may usher in an additional arsenal of security by design techniques.

The authors welcome your feedback.

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