Saffo on DNA Privacy
The Institute for the Future’s Paul Saffo has written an op-ed in the Washington Post addressing biometric technology and its discontents. He also takes a quick look at some of the future problems surrounding DNA and privacy:
"…DNA is the gold standard of biometrics, but even DNA starts to look
like fool’s gold under close inspection. With a bit of discipline, one
can keep a card safe or a PIN secret, but if your DNA becomes your
identity, you are sharing your secret with the world every time you
sneeze or touch something. The novelist Scott Turow has already written
about a hapless sap framed for a murder by an angry spouse who spreads
his DNA at the scene of a killing.
The potential for DNA identity theft is enough to make us all wear a
gauze mask and keep our hands in our pockets. DNA can of course be
easily copied — after all, its architecture is designed for
duplication — but that is the least of its problems. Unlike a credit
card number, DNA can’t be retired and swapped for a new sequence if it
falls into the hands of crooks or snoops. Once your DNA identity is
stolen, you live with the consequences forever.
This hasn’t stopped innovators from using DNA as an indicator of
authenticity. The artist Thomas Kinkade signs his most valuable
paintings with an ink containing a bit of his DNA. (He calls it a
"forgery-proof DNA Matrix signature.") We don’t know how much of Tom is
really in his paintings, but perhaps it’s enough for forgers to
duplicate the ink, as well as the distinctive brush strokes.
The biggest problem with DNA is that it says so much more about us
than an arbitrary serial number does. Give up your Social Security
number and a stranger can inspect your credit rating. But surrender
your DNA and a snoop can discover your innermost genetic secrets –
your ancestry, genetic defects and predispositions to certain diseases.
Of course we will have strong genetic privacy laws, but those laws will
allow consumers to "voluntarily" surrender their information in the
course of applying for work or pleading for health care. A genetic
marketplace not unlike today’s consumer information business will
emerge, swarming with health insurers attempting to prune out risky
individuals, drug companies seeking customers and employers managing
potential worker injury liability.
Faced with this prospect, any sensible privacy maven would conclude
that DNA is too dangerous to collect, much less use for a task as
unimportant as turning on a laptop or working a cash machine. But
society will not be able to resist its use. The pharmaceutical industry
will need our DNA to concoct customized wonder drugs that will fix
everything from high cholesterol to halitosis. And crime fighters will
make giving DNA information part of our civic duty and national
security. Once they start collecting, the temptation to use it for
other purposes will be too great…"
Paul Saffo, "A Trail of DNA and Data" Washington Post, April 3, 2005.
Check out the IFTF’s blog Future Now.