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Further Reading

Department: Biohazards

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 30


Your DNA, Art & Privacy

by Paige Comstock Cunningham

If you've ever left a stray hair in an airport bathroom sink, tossed a used tissue into the trash, or recycled a water bottle, you could be a target of surveillance, of the genetic kind. Collection of your DNA from such articles might be an example of police opportunism or the germ for an art project.

Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg intends to unsettle us by highlighting the uses and misuses that can be made of "abandoned DNA." She extracted and analyzed DNA from a discarded cigarette butt to create a 3-D portrait of the smoker.1 The facemask Dewey-Hagborg created from her own DNA is not an identical match,2 but the number of personal details that can be learned from DNA analysis is disturbingly large.

If DNA art intrigues you, check out the variety of websites that offer to create wall art from your personal DNA sample. Some promise that your identity will be kept anonymous by omitting key fragments or by destroying any identifying links. Beware that DNA sleuths might be able to narrow your identity to a group of twelve, six, or even fewer possibilities. Cyber security expert Yaniv Erlich used public information to identify the DNA of J. Craig Venter, a pioneer in genome sequencing. Earlier this year, a keynote session at the Bio-IT World Conference & Expo was devoted to genetic privacy.3

Law enforcement use varies from "voluntary DNA dragnets" to solve crime to federal checkpoints to collect saliva and blood samples for a drunk driving study. But concerns about the collection of DNA information extend far beyond such purposes. It is standard procedure to sample the blood of every newborn, often without parental consent. In some states, these blood spots are retained indefinitely, and have been eyed as a massive cache of genetic research material. DNA samples submitted for paternity testing or genealogical purposes may be retained and resold for medical or pharmaceutical research, perhaps without your consent or knowledge.

Rights of privacy and autonomy justify natural concerns—even outrage—over misuse or the use without consent of DNA. These individual rights bump up against public health research, which is not possible without large population samples. For example, large-scale genetic research has helped reduce breast cancer, and is actively searching for factors that contribute to childhood diabetes and obesity. The need for DNA for such research challenges us to factor in not only our personal medical needs, but also those of the broader community.

Complex public health issues can only be effectively addressed with complex, comprehensive data. Big Data facilitates the collection, storage, and dissemination of genetic information. The challenge is how to protect privacy while obtaining data that represents the entire population. Whether that is possible in an era of massive database breaches by both governments and businesses is an open -question.

 Legislative measures to protect privacy are necessarily limited; there is no law against picking up discarded Big Mac boxes. And even where there are rigorous research protocols for separating identifiable information, genetic profiles can be "hacked." Participating in public health research is a meaningful contribution to the public good, but the participant must be willing to accept the possibility of human failure in protecting data. The good news is that most people are willing to consent, if they are asked.

But for the genuine DNA recluse, there is a new product. Along with her DNA art project, Dewey-Hagborg unveiled "Invisible," a commercial product designed to eradicate stray traces of DNA. Just spray "Erase" and "Replace," and your DNA trail vanishes. 

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