Following Edward Snowden’s exposé of classified documents from the National Security Agency (NSA), we now understand the ways in which our technological privacy has been bought, sold, and generally compromised. Under the PRISM program, Yahoo, Google, and other tech giants voluntarily granted the NSA access to our confidential, intimate technological information, including phone calls and emails. Worse, in the name of national security, the NSA also broke into communication links connecting Yahoo and Google data centers around the world. If your personal technological information is so easily acquired, how simple (or difficult) is it to obtain your genetic data — your identity?
Lucky for us, Heather Dewey-Hagborg, a Ph.D. student in Electronic Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has already pondered this question. As part of her Invisible project, Dewey-Hagborg is creating a product which will erase any genetic trail you unintentionally leave behind — in restaurants, at the gym, on an interview — by deleting 99.5 percent of your DNA traces and blurring the remaining 0.5 percent. “Don’t be tracked, analyzed or cloned,” her website urges: “Invisible is the future of genetic privacy.”
How real is the threat of genetic theft?
“Over the past twenty years, DNA analysis has revolutionized forensic science, and … DNA evidence is key to the conviction or exoneration of suspects of various types of crime, from theft to rape and murder,” wrote the authors of a paper, Authentication of forensic DNA samples, published in Forensic Science International. Noting that “anyone with basic equipment and know-how” could produce synthesized DNA, they proceed to create some artificial DNA and apply it to surfaces of objects or incorporate it into genuine human tissues and plant it in crime scenes. What did they discover? The artificial DNA was indistinguishable from the natural. The reliability of this criminal investigative tool is questionable. Similarly, in 2006, Rebecca Dent, Centre for Forensic Science, University of Western Australia, sprayed crime scenes with fragments of DNA representing CODIS loci and proved how easily they could be contaminated or spoofed.
Closer to the heart, Dr. Robert Edwards, who developed the in vitro fertility treatment that led to the birth of the first test-tube baby, observed before he died that scientists working in a fertility lab already had the tools at hand (and in all likelihood the knowledge) to clone a human being from just a small sample of DNA.
According to Dewey-Hagborg, there are 150 cells in a nanogram of DNA and forensic scientists require just 0.5 nanograms of DNA to perform standard forensic analysis. Meanwhile, every day each of us is shedding hair (5 nanograms of DNA per strand) and leaving behind saliva (108 nanograms of DNA in a microliter of saliva) and traces of our sweat, wherever we go. In a previous project called Stranger Visions, Dewey-Hagborg gathered strands of hair, cigarette butts, and chewing gum from New York city streets. After analyzing the DNA contained in these items, she then made realistic portraits of the strangers who left them behind. “You wouldn’t leave your medical records on the subway for just anyone to read,” said Dewey-Hagborg in a press statement. “It should be a choice how you share your information and with whom, be it about your genes, your email or your phone calls.”
Believing genetic privacy to be an emerging issue that is “quickly becoming vitally important,” she added. “In five years time, I expect genetic privacy products will be as commonplace as hand sanitizer.” Her product, Invisible, will be available this June for $99.