Adam Rutherford writes about the hidden price of DNA ancestry tests like 23andMe. To protect our genetic code, DNA encryption might someday become a reality (via The Guardian).
23andMe’s business offers genealogy and health-related services. But like virtually any company ever, it’s not doing it for altruistic reasons. Instead its goal is to amass the biggest biological database in the world.
Personalized medicine and early screening for diseases sounds like a wonderful future. But there are worrisome aspects as well. Companies like 23andMe own your DNA because of the terms and conditions. As is the case with certain other companies, that makes you the product.
At least the company is explicit about this. It does give customers the option not to give up their genome to commercial interests. But out of its five million customers, four million of them didn’t opt out.
A possible solution is DNA encryption. Last year WIRED wrote about this technology, and how there is already research being done about it. A man named Gill Bejerano leads a developmental biology lab at Stanford. He investigates the genetic roots of human disease.
In a paper published in Science, he uses a cryptographic “genome cloaking” method. This let him perform his genomic experiments while keeping 97% of each person’s genetic data completely hidden.
Just like programs have bugs, people have bugs. Finding disease-causing genetic traits is a lot like spotting flaws in computer code. You have to compare code that works to code that doesn’t. But genetic data is much more sensitive, and people worry that it might be used against them by insurers, or even stolen by hackers. If a patient held the cryptographic key to their data, they could get a valuable medical diagnosis while not exposing the rest of their genome to outside threats.
What if we could have our DNA cake and eat it too? We could let doctors use our genome in medicine, but we would still be in control of it. Food for thought.