The hidden dangers of Airbnb’s partnership with DNA-testing ancestry company 23andMe

The collaboration aims to provide “heritage” holidays – and gives a free pass to unscientific ideas. 

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Direct-to-consumer DNA-testing company 23andMe recently announced a new partnership with travel website Airbnb to generate holiday locations based on peoples’ ancestry. Travelling to the idyllic corner of France where your great-grandparents once lived is harmless enough, but giving this information over to a privately held technology company feels like an outtake from Black Mirror

While methodologies and levels of accuracy can vary wildly across DNA-testing companies, the basic premise remains the same. You send off for a kit, and supply your DNA through a cheek swab or a sample of saliva. The sample is sent to a lab for sequencing, where its genetic information is extracted. This information is relayed to the customer, often displayed in the form of percentages and pie charts.

According to Airbnb, “heritage travel” is a growing industry. Yet partnerships like this make troubling leaps. Ancestry, heritage and genetics have often intersected with bogus ideas about race. Academics have previously raised concerns that commercial DNA-testing may reify the idea that racial differences are biologically founded rather than socially ascribed. The dangerous junk science that grounds race in biological difference has been used historically to establish the superiority of one group of people over another – and is currently finding a renewed audience among far-right groups.

In a press release announcing the new venture, Airbnb and 23andMe used the terms heritage, ancestry and DNA interchangeably. At its best, such over-simplification can fuel misconceptions. At its worst, these ideas play into the hands of far-right activists, whose fixation on racial purity has mutated into an obsession with genetics, aided by easily accessible – and often unreliable – DNA-testing kits.

Moreover, the travel opportunity provided by Airbnb muddies the relationship between genetics and cultural identity. “DNA is not an identity,” says Yaniv Erlich, a professor at Columbia University in New York who works at the intersection of computer science and genomics. “Just because someone has a tiny bit of [a] certain type of DNA does not mean that they are culturally and politically associated with [a cultural] group.”

Commercial DNA testing has grown rapidly during the last ten years, and a non-invasive home tests costs an average £53. Yet providers have attracted criticism over their privacy policies. In 2015, 23andMe sold genetic data to more than 13 pharmaceutical companies, and recently entered a four-year deal with GlaxoSmithKline, granting the pharmaceutical giant unfettered access to its data. Other companies have been criticised for duping consumers about the accuracy of test results. Though neither company has clarified exact privacy details, it seems likely that 23andMe would share genetic data with Airbnb in order for the platform to generate holiday locations and itineraries.

As more people take DNA tests at home, companies accumulate more information, and sequencing becomes more accurate. A customer could find that a quarter of their heritage comes from the southern part France in 2018, and then find out which region in the south of France they’re from the following year, as more people with similar results take DNA tests with the same company. For example, 23andMe expanded their database to include 120 additional regions in 2018, which they say would give customers the ability to “peer deeper into their genetic origins”.

But less granular results can be expected for those whose ancestors don’t hail from Europe.  Researchers studying a catalogue of ancestry data found 78 per cent of the individuals tested were of exclusively European ancestry. Until August 2018, 23andMe was only able to match people with sub-Saharan African ancestry to three broad categories, which it has since been able to update with the help of initiatives like the African Genetics Project.  

Mark Thomas, a geneticist at UCL who has been working in the area for more than 25 years, points out that the “ethnicity reports” that are often the end result of these DNA tests conflate ethnicity and race. Geneticists consider both of these terms unscientific and outdated.

“They seem to be based more on imposition, which imposes hierarchies usually. They’re taking genetics and telling you, this is where you belong for this ethnicity, and that’s more akin to these old, outdated ideas about race, which I find a little bit concerning,” Thomas says.

Yet Airbnb isn’t the only company poised to reap profits from fallible genetic science. Spotify has partnered with Ancestry, another successful DNA-testing site in the US, to create playlists based on people’s DNA. US dating app Pheramor used people’s genetic information to find their optimal romantic match. As the journalist Maxine Mackintosh has pointed out, these developments speak to a larger marketing trend: cultivating a saleable cultural identity on the basis of genetics.

The science behind genetic testing is dubious. Humans share 99.9 per cent of their DNA with other humans – only 0.1 per cent of our individual DNA is unique (which is what produces differences in people’s appearances, for example). Though holiday packages derived from genetic testing might seem like a novelty, simplifying the relationship between science and socially ascribed, ambiguous categories like “heritage” is far from innocuous.

Update on 18 June: A spokesperson from 23andMe said that no data is being exchanged between Airbnb and 23andMe. They did not give further clarification about how DNA test results would be used to identify holiday activities and locations specifically on AirBnB.

Sanjana Varghese was perviously a Wellcome scholar at the New Statesman. She writes about science and technology.