Law in the Internet Society

DNA Privacy: Pressing Concern and Political Rallying Point

-- By CharlesRice - DRAFT 2


Your DNA is the most fundamental information about who you are. More than that, it's fundamental information about who all of your family members are too. With the genetic data of one family member it’s possible to make inferences about the genetics of blood relatives. This includes those living, dead, and yet unborn.

The security of our genetic data— and the uses to which it can legally subjected— has taken on practical importance in the context of 1) a global economy increasingly fueled by personal data and 2) the emergence of companies that offer low-cost, direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic tests.

Absent safeguards on the acquisition and use of this information there are both immediate and long-term risks to equality, freedom, and human agency. As our ability to discern useful insights from expanding indexes of genetic information improves, it’s imperative that we address DNA privacy. Moreover, proximate concerns around the use of genetic data present an opportunity to bootstrap political focus to address broader privacy issues.

DTC Genetic Testing Companies

While their meteoric rise has been hard to track perfectly, estimates suggest that DTC genetic testing companies had tested more than 26 million people as of 2019. Their business model is fundamentally reliant on exploiting the genetic data they collect. In the long term, DTC companies expect that there will be future, profitable uses for this data (i.e. developing new drugs).

In the short-term, however, the main revenue stream comes from the sale of genetic data to third parties. While all of the data sold must be “de-identified” to remove names it’s not clear this is effective; DNA is intrinsically identifying. Once you’ve agreed, it is impossible to pull your data from use in current or completed studies conducted by 3rd party buyers of your data. DNA testing firms are already lobbying for further erosions of genetic privacy.

Disturbingly (if unsurprisingly) very few customers understand what they’ve given away when they purchase an at home genetic test. In 2016, only a third of the 86 existing DTC genetic companies provided sufficient explanations to customers on privacy and the permitted uses of their genetic information.

Immediate Threats

Even if you haven’t shared your DNA results online, it’s likely a family member has, and with this information, it is possible to make inferences about your DNA. As a result, we are rapidly approaching a universal DNA database. Studies suggest that 60% of white Americans could be identified from an anonymous DNA sample through reference to public genealogy databases, and that this number will rise to 90% in only a few years. Nearly everyone’s genetic information is (or soon will be) available and at risk of being misused.

Widespread access to libraries of DNA data— created in part by DTC genetic companies but also national health ministries— have already led to high profile criminal arrests. The Golden State Killer was identified in 2018 when DNA found at a crime scene was matched to a relative’s DTC results uploaded to on a public genealogy website. In 2015, Sweden used a national DNA database to identify the assassin of their Foreign Minister Anna Lindh a decade after her death. These capabilities should prompt chilling questions around law enforcement and civil rights. China, for example, is using DNA information as a tool of control in their ongoing campaign of suppression against Muslim Uighurs.

As genetic discrimination becomes technically feasible it could transform access to employment, healthcare, and other opportunities. Congress hoped that the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) would be “first civil rights bill of the new century of the life sciences.” While GINA does offer some protections (you can’t be denied employment or health insurance because a DNA test shows you face an increased risk of cancer) it also leaves gaping holes (you likely can be de denied employment or health insurance because a family member took a DNA test showing an increased risk of cancer; life and disability insurance are not covered at all).

For now, there are legal and scientific barriers to cloning and DNA experimentation; once sequenced, however, DNA information can be stored indefinitely. The diffusion of gene-editing technology also means that nearly anyone can “hack DNA.” CRISPR offers a mail-order gene-editing kit for only $169. This combination should raise dystopian shivers. We can officially start worrying about someone cloning us in their basement someday.

The experience of Henrietta Lacks suggests that gaps in the protection of our genetic data will be exploited. We’ll have to hope the protections against are improved upon rather than weakened over time. This will not be achieved without proactive change; experts have described the current U.S. legal regime as imposing “no limitations” on future uses of DNA data.

Bootstrapping Political Will

Most people fail to understand why the data they share through their phones, computers, and other connected devices present such a dire threat to their privacy and autonomy. It’s much easier to understand—and subsequently build a coalition to combat— the potential risk of unfettered access to (and use of) our DNA. GINA was passed in 2008 with near unanimous support. Recently, DTC genetic testing companies have seen a significant slowdown in new tests; some experts attribute this to rising fears around genetic privacy.

Concurrently, a few genetic testing companies have adopted business models that 1) grant participants sole ownership and control of their data, and 2) enable them to sell that data anonymously. The profits are relatively small, but by granting individuals control over their data, potential buyers are incentivized to treat that data with care. This also adds to the political coalition around genetic privacy.

Political agreement on protections for genetic data (which appears possible) would be a victory in the arena of genetic privacy. Perhaps more importantly, it offers an opportunity to draw attention to the broader conversation around technology, privacy, and informed control of our most sensitive personal data.

An informative draft, presenting coherently the material on which more than the present rather weak conclusion could be based. The route to improvement is to focus the next draft on your own idea, the one the essay is intended to communicate, which I think goes beyond the perception that people have slight understanding of the uses of their genetic data.

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r3 - 31 Dec 2020 - 18:29:09 - EbenMoglen
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