Compelled Disclosure, Richard Nixon and your genetic information

In addition to the three general modes of sharing genetic information I described yesterday, there is another type of disclosure individuals considering personal genome sequencing should be aware of: compelled disclosure by subpoena.

For genetic sequence data to be useful, it will need to be shared with individuals, companies, or organizations. These individuals might take extraordinary care to maintain the confidentiality of this information and to be good data stewards. But, they might receive a subpoena that requests confidential records to be made available for a court proceeding. For individuals who are concerned about the confidentiality of their genetic information, compelled disclosure by subpoena should be considered a risk.

The good news is that subpoenas of medical research data about individuals who were promised confidentiality is uncommon. There are a few famous cases, one involved lawyers hired by tobacco companies to go looking for data about asbestos raising the chances of lung cancer in smokers. A subpoena allowed them to gain access to the confidential files of a Dr. Irving Selikoff, although the files were redacted to protect identities of research participants prior to (compelled) disclosure (a few details here).

Don’t get Dicked Richard’ed
So, what does Richard Nixon have to do with compelled disclosure? Interesting trivia mainly. The Supreme Court case United States vs. Nixon is typically cited by the courts as the precedent for supporting compelled disclosure by subpoena.

Endote: Boo Hoo
Incidentally, there is a very nice article in the New England Journal of Medicine about scientific researchers who get subpoenaed. The article is not open access, unfortunately, so you probably can’t read it without paying $10.

It has been at least a few months since my last mention of frustration about the lack of access to quality information for Joe Schmoes, like myself.

I get frustrated most when articles deal with issues that are of direct relevance to the general public and they are not accessible, like the article about subpoenas above. Clearly, this article should be of interest to researchers. But what about research participants? It is, after all, their data that is potentially at risk. Research participants should not be treated like cows and keeping them outside the tent of good scholarly work on matters such as this does just that. I say this with the utmost sincerity, I’m not a dogmatic jerk in real life.

My favorite example in the last few years was an article published in Science with a title that included language about the “need for public dialogue“. If you click on the link, you’ll see that the article is trapped behind a firewall. For public dialogue to occur, the public needs access to the article. No?

One of the things I look forward to the most over the next 10 years or so, and one of the reasons I’m so happy to be a part of the Personal Genome Project with its open-access and open source ethos, is increased public access to science and the scientists who produce it. Support open access.

This month I am doing an extended meditation about the risks of obtaining and sharing personal genome sequences. This exercise will be cathartic for me. Beyond that, I hope it may help to reorient the conversation about risks into something that one day might resemble practical guidance for individuals considering obtaining and sharing personal genetic information.


One Response to “Compelled Disclosure, Richard Nixon and your genetic information”

  1. Steven Murphy MD on December 15th, 2007 7:30 pm

    Next time send me an email Jason. I am certain Yale access is better than Harvard’s……..

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