It was a leak of potentially epic dimensions. When Cathay Pacific announced in October that its internal systems had been destroyed, nearly 10 million passengers from Hong Kong's flagship airline faced the possibility that their personal data, including passport data to credit card numbers, would have been intercepted .
However, if we exclude the concern, the truth is that things could have been much, much worse. Since DNA testing procedures have started and are readily available online, there is now the possibility for hackers to access the innermost secrets of your own life, past and future.
The threat was highlighted in June from data breaches to a major Israeli MyHeritage pedigree company, which may have exposed 92 personal files to millions of users. The company, which stores information on family trees and DNA of its users, insists that the violation consisted only of e-mail addresses and old passwords, but the attack nevertheless opened the eyes of the world to an emerging threat.
In the growing field of Asian DNA testing, the two biggest players - both Hong Kong-based companies - are aware of the security challenges. "We take data protection and privacy of our customers very seriously and include managing certain steps and protocols to ensure that it remains secure," says Peter Wong, chief technical officer at Prenetics Limited.
Prenetics is partly owned by Alibaba, the owner of the South China Morning Post, and unlike MyHeritage, its control focuses on health-related DNA testing, which is increasingly popular in Asia.
Kevin MacDonald, founder and chief executive officer of Advanced Genomic Solutions (AGS), which has an advanced testing laboratory at Central as well as a subsidiary in the United States, says the trend of Asian demand is moving towards health-based DNA testing.
In North America and Europe melting pots, consumers often prefer DTCGTs - tests that are widely available over the internet and are often marketed as bids for the origin of a person. But in Asia, where there is less asymptomatic origin, MacDonald says consumers are more likely to switch to DNA tests that can be used to predict the predisposition for certain forms of cancer or dementia.
"We empower our customers with their genetic data to make healthier choices for their lifestyle, that's our main activity."
But as demand for services is rising - industry experts predict that the DNA test will be a 50 billion dollar industry up to 2026, much of which is driven by Asian demand - so the risk that sooner or later, there will be a high profile hacking attack.
“In five years, we will see the number of DNA tests increase by 10 and many of them will be at the back of the B2B [Business to Business] trials, where Asia is miles ahead USASays MacDonald.
Both Prenetics and AGS work together with companies, including insurance groups and fitness chains, to provide employees and customers with trials that will help identify potential health risks.
For these companies, DNA testing resembles a sound business policy to encourage healthy - and therefore more productive - workers.
However, critics say that as more companies adopt DNA tests, the likelihood of controlling the flow of personal data is becoming more and more complex.
Ultimately, it is necessary to have great confidence, as MacDonald acknowledges. "The future and success of the whole industry depends on maintaining consumer confidence, it's really that simple," he says.
This trust has already eroded as several companies admit to sharing data with third parties. Last month, the president of FamilyTreeDNA, one of the largest home genetic testing companies in the US, was forced to apologize to the public when it was revealed that secret data was being shared with groups like the FBI to help solve violent crimes. A US Website has published methods for deleting your data from the 23andMe Genetics Website ”.
Perhaps it should, since last year the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline acquired 300 million US dollars in 23andMe with the express intention of using DNA data of customers for research.
The threat is global. Data has become the most desirable thing in 21 century, with some of the largest companies in the world, such as Facebook and Google, to be willing to use any method to obtain them.
Prenetics notes that despite receiving 40 million in financing from Alibaba and additional funding from Ping An, China's largest insurance company, it does not share users' data without their consent. "Our customers decide and control how the information is used and how it is shared," says Wong.
"This restricts all third parties' access to customer data, including our investors and business partners."
MacDonald is even more impressive. "We don't sell or share customer data without any exceptions," he says.
With few obstacles in regulating DNA testing in Asia - in any form, trust is the most important. In Japan, where government regulations are traditionally onerous and DTCGTs are the most widespread in Asia, there are other issues. A team working with the Japanese Science and Technology Service found that in the country's DNA testing climate there was "guidance but no regulation" and that diagnostic disorders should be accompanied by professional medical advice.
Due to the lack of regulations across Asia, customers need to understand the consequences of a DNA test. If your data is intercepted, you become the product and of course it is impossible to get it back.