kw: musings, genetics, ethics
On the way to work, I was listening to a discussion of genetics and privacy. One of the participants was Art Kaplan, a bioethicist from U. Penn, who was warning just how hard it is to keep our DNA private. We shed skin cells at the rate of a couple of grams a day—that is billions of cells—and a small sample of our saliva, such as a lip mark on a drinking glass, contains a sample sufficient for sequencing. I recalled that we lose several dozen hairs from our head daily, and men with body hair lose another few dozen from arms, chest, whatever. Then there is shaving residue, both male and female.
Who might want our DNA? Plans are in the works, for example, to maintain a national DNA database for criminal investigations, similar in nature to the FBI's fingerprint database. So far, the FBI hasn't gained authority to have everyone fingerprinted, but you'd be surprised how many fingerprint sets are on file. All sorts of programs that take prints get into the files (For example, I've been fingerprinted for a criminal background check, needed to teach music. I am sure the FBI got a copy). So, the FBI and most other criminal investigative bodies are interested in our DNA, though they are likely to have political trouble getting authority for comprehensive DNA gathering.
Who else? My insurance company would love a DNA sample. They could find out if I'm prone to genetically-determined chronic diseases; they can't as yet exclude coverage, but they are sure to try to get such powers. Will the day come when I won't be able to get coverage without having a mouth swab taken?
Even if such measures never become legal, some entities may find it worthwhile to gather DNA on the sly. It is so darn easy! Legends of voodoo, not much based in reality so I'm told, imagine a kind of "espionage of body stuffs", where a practitioner gathers skin flakes from your mattress and pillow, shed hairs off the floor of your room, and even cells shed into your toilet. Such measures, found in fiction, but not much in real life, could become a new trade in "gray DNA harvesting".
But it doesn't need to be that intrusive. The waiters at a restaurant, or the busboys, can get DNA from drinking glasses. It can be gotten off doorknobs, and from sweat in garments and gloves. Imagine what a cloakroom attendant would be willing to do for a doubled or tripled salary. The mouse pad at my desk probably contains millions of cells shed from the skin of my hand over recent months. Who is able to enter my office after hours? Does anybody in my company care? Will they ever? (Therefrom cometh paranoia)
Your hair and fingernail shavings may not be much use in making a voodoo doll, but they could be gold to your insurance company. Perhaps the only defense is rampant vigilantism against such practitioners, to make it so NOT worth their while…