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).
[Astronaut Twin Study Finds Space Travel Can Alter DNA]
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.
[That Time Researchers Created a DNA Strand to Take Over a Computer]
One thought on “DNA Encryption Could Someday be a Requirement”
Congratulations on yet another important topic.
As an aside, for the past two decades of rapid development of computing technology, we’ve arrived at a cross-roads in which we’ve already chosen to go down the path of turning that computational power on ourselves, specifically not only describing and cataloguing but understanding our genetic code, and the specific keys to important features like inborn errors of metabolism, other undesirable heritable traits, and known predisposing factors to early mortality. The next phase will be the manipulation of our DNA, as well as the transcription and translation of proteins that express disease.
Molecular biology and disease control, specifically extension of life in both duration and quality, will overtake and drive much of future of our future computer tech development.
That said, you’ve provided an important PSA by alerting people that they are signing over the rights to their DNA to companies like 23 and Me (they’re not the only ones with these terms) by not opting out. To be sure, these companies are providing a service to many people who are concerned about known family histories of diseases.
Ownership to the rights to your DNA is a principal driver of these businesses. In future, not unlike what has already occurred in medical research, is that regulators and legislators may alter this balance, forcing companies to have people not simply opt in, but retrospectively alter the terms and even removing access to their DNA.
In the meantime, encryption might help to bring that discussion forward.