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Am J Hum Genet. 2015 Nov 5;97(5):631-46. doi: 10.1016/j.ajhg.2015.09.010. Epub 2015 Oct 29.

Privacy Risks from Genomic Data-Sharing Beacons.

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Department of Genetics, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA. Electronic address:
Department of Genetics, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA. Electronic address:


The human genetics community needs robust protocols that enable secure sharing of genomic data from participants in genetic research. Beacons are web servers that answer allele-presence queries--such as "Do you have a genome that has a specific nucleotide (e.g., A) at a specific genomic position (e.g., position 11,272 on chromosome 1)?"--with either "yes" or "no." Here, we show that individuals in a beacon are susceptible to re-identification even if the only data shared include presence or absence information about alleles in a beacon. Specifically, we propose a likelihood-ratio test of whether a given individual is present in a given genetic beacon. Our test is not dependent on allele frequencies and is the most powerful test for a specified false-positive rate. Through simulations, we showed that in a beacon with 1,000 individuals, re-identification is possible with just 5,000 queries. Relatives can also be identified in the beacon. Re-identification is possible even in the presence of sequencing errors and variant-calling differences. In a beacon constructed with 65 European individuals from the 1000 Genomes Project, we demonstrated that it is possible to detect membership in the beacon with just 250 SNPs. With just 1,000 SNP queries, we were able to detect the presence of an individual genome from the Personal Genome Project in an existing beacon. Our results show that beacons can disclose membership and implied phenotypic information about participants and do not protect privacy a priori. We discuss risk mitigation through policies and standards such as not allowing anonymous pings of genetic beacons and requiring minimum beacon sizes.

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