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23andMe reverses decision to automatically tell customers about their relatives

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The genetic testing service 23andMe is reversing a controversial policy change that would have begun informing its clients of their close genetic relatives — potentially even revealing close relatives that they weren't aware they had. Vox published a feature on 23andMe's service last week, describing one instance in which it led to a couple divorcing after the birth of an earlier child came to light. At the time, this close relatives services required that users opt into it, both in order to find relatives and be found by relatives. But 23andMe had planned to automatically enable the service for all new users beginning Friday. Existing users would have been told of the change and given the opportunity to opt out.

"Customers need to make their own deliberate and informed decision."

After seeing Vox's story, 23andMe has decided to stop automatically enabling the close relatives feature going forward. New and existing users will now face a pop up or an email telling them about the close relatives feature, giving them a choice to enable it or not. "Customers need to make their own deliberate and informed decision if they want this information," 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki writes in a post reprinted on Vox. "It is 23andMe's responsibility to make sure our customers have a choice and that they understand the potential implications." That means that 23andMe will have less data to draw from and share with its customers, but it also restores some amount of privacy — an important factor when playing with a thing as personal as someone's genes, especially since customers may not know what information they're capable of revealing.

23andMe has been one of the most popular genetic testing services, likely contributing to its ability to find close genetic relatives. The company has hit some roadblocks, however: for the last 10 months, it's been struggling with FDA regulations, which are now keeping it from providing health-related reports.