Traverse City Record-Eagle

Body & Soul

July 13, 2013

Spread of DNA databases sparks ethical concerns

LONDON (AP) — You can ditch your computer and leave your cellphone at home, but you can’t escape your DNA.

It belongs uniquely to you — and, increasingly, to the authorities.

Countries around the world are collecting genetic material from millions of citizens in the name of fighting crime and terrorism — and, according to critics, heading into uncharted ethical terrain.

Leaders include the United States — where the Supreme Court recently backed the collection of DNA swabs from suspects on arrest — and Britain, where police held samples of almost 7 million people, more than 10 percent of the population, until a court-ordered about-face saw the incineration of a chunk of the database.

The expanding trove of DNA in official hands has alarmed privacy campaigners, and some scientists. Recent leaks about U.S. surveillance programs by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden have made people realize their online information and electronic communications may not be as secure as they thought. Could the same be true of the information we hold within our genes? DNA samples that can help solve robberies and murders could also, in theory, be used to track down our relatives, scan us for susceptibility to disease, or monitor our movements.

Earlier this year Yaniv Erlich, who runs a lab at MIT’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, published a paper in the journal Science describing how he was able to identify individuals, and their families, from anonymous DNA data in a research project. All it took was a computer algorithm, a genetic genealogy website and searches of publicly available Internet records.

“It was a very weird feeling — a ‘wow’ feeling,” Erlich told The Associated Press. “I had to take a walk outside just to think about this process.”

Erlich says DNA databases have enormous positive power, both for fighting crime and in scientific research. But, he said, “our work shows there are privacy limitations.”

Text Only