Identifying Personal Genomes by Surname Inference

Abstract

Sharing sequencing data sets without identifiers has become a common practice in genomics. Here, we report that surnames can be recovered from personal genomes by profiling short tandem repeats on the Y chromosome (Y-STRs) and querying recreational genetic genealogy databases. We show that a combination of a surname with other types of metadata, such as age and state, can be used to triangulate the identity of the target. A key feature of this technique is that it entirely relies on free, publicly accessible Internet resources. We quantitatively analyze the probability of identification for U.S. males. We further demonstrate the feasibility of this technique by tracing back with high probability the identities of multiple participants in public sequencing projects.

Authors: Melissa Gymrek, Amy L. McGuire, David Golan, Eran Halperin, Yaniv Erlich
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