Spotify is offering custom playlists based on your DNA, but what does this mean for your data privacy?

Is this a step towards sci-fi levels of music recommendations or could it be the stepping stone to a musical dystopia?

                            Spotify is offering custom playlists based on your DNA, but what does this mean for your data privacy?

There are thousands of people who will readily swear by Spotify's recommendation engine, claiming that the service gets their music tastes as nothing else can. But Spotify is not satisfied with just that. The latest announcement from the music streaming giant sounds like it's straight out of an Isaac Asimov story.

Spotify is teaming up with Ancestry -- the world’s largest for-profit genealogy company -- to create customized playlists tuned to your DNA. Using test results from the company’s $99 AncestryDNA program, the partnership combines Spotify’s personalized recommendations with Ancestry’s patented DNA home kit data to give users recommendations based on both their Spotify habits and their ancestral place of origin, Quartz reports.

“It’s so much more than the stats and the data and the records,” Ancestry’s Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Vineet Mehra says. “How do we help people experience their culture and not just read about it? Music seemed like an obvious way to do that.”

While the idea sounds pretty futuristic and exciting, the obvious question it raises is how safe would one's data be in such a model, especially considering the fact that the data, in this case, is our entire genetic makeup. As the issue of data privacy becomes more and more relevant in an era where cyber attacks and hacks could mean leaving thousands of people's information exposed, one can't help but wonder as to what the repercussions would be if such sensitive data fell into the wrong hands.


A report by Think Progress in May 2017 found that buried in their terms of service, Ancestry claims ownership of a “perpetual, royalty-free, worldwide license” that may be used against “you or a genetic relative” as the company and its researchers see fit. This basically means after you agree to the company’s terms of service, you and any of your genetic relatives appearing in the data surrender partial legal rights to the DNA, including any damages that Ancestry may cause unintentionally or purposefully.

According to the Quartz report, since the collaboration launched on Thursday, Sept. 21, more than 10,000 people have signed up for a custom playlist, and over 10 million people have already taken the AncestryDNA test.

One of the people who have already beta-tested the service is Ashley Reese of Jezebel, who wrote about the experience in a piece titled 'I hate my DNA now'. Reese had mixed feelings about the recommended playlist, which after breaking down her genetic build up, suggested a mix of West African pop and South London grime. Although Reese did discover a song called ‘Diaraby Nene’ by Malian singer Oumou Sangaré, which she says she "felt in the depths of my soul", she also did an elaborate critique of the playlist, especially focusing on the misses rather than the hits. 

"What the hell does 'Mali: 20 percent' mean anyway?" she writes, critical of the correlation between Ancestry's findings based on her DNA and the Spotify playlist.



Another slightly less significant problem that might arise is that the feature may be low hanging fruit for the many crusaders of the PC culture who would be more than happy to jump at the opportunity to point out the cultural appropriation that is sure to arise in the early days of the service. What are the odds that any person of color who signs up for the service sees any Eurocentric music in their playlist? Pretty slim surely. Also, would you actually prefer music tuned to your DNA more than Spotify's existing recommendation engine, which is actually chipping away at something more useful: like your active listening history and genre-based breakdowns? Probably not.

For their part, Ancestry released a statement to quell the speculations around the safety of subscribers' data. "Protecting our customers’ privacy is Ancestry’s highest priority," the statement reads. "Spotify does not have access to DNA data of any Ancestry customers. Customers can manually input regions, into the playlist generator on Spotify and then a custom playlist is created with songs by artists from the various regions and across a wide variety of musical genres. All information is manually input by customers and the experience is completely optional.”

All said and done, it'll surely be interesting to see how the new feature plays out for Spotify, who have been championing the benefits of Big Data collaborations ever since their inception. We should get a clearer picture of whether the feature will just be a small gimmick or something truly groundbreaking in the days to come.