October 29, 2002
US Department of Genetic Identification

Annalee Newitz attended a guest lecture that Craig Venter presented to an biology class at Woods Hole's Marine Biological Laboratory. She managed to get in some questions to Venter about his new venture to do DNA sequencing for anyone with enough money to pay for it. His answers raise some troubling issues.

"What if you sequence my genome and find out that I have some genes with interesting and unique properties?" I asked. "Who will own that data?" Looking at the floor with a half-smile, Venter evasively replied, "Well, you'd get a copy of the data." Did he mean I'd be licensing the data from him, the way I license Windows XP? I asked for clarification. Finally, after much hedging, Venter explained that the genomic data he gathered would be in a public database but that "probably it will belong to the nonprofit organization." So I'd be paying him to sequence my genome, but I wouldn't own the data.

At the end of his lecture Venter unveiled one of the real goals of his new work. We stared at a PowerPoint slide that displayed the image of a card that looked a lot like a driver's license. Only it was issued by the "US Department of Genetic Identification," an imaginary government agency that Venter predicted would exist in the future. This agency would use the biotech Venter's lab is developing to sequence your genome on the cheap and associate its unique code with an ID card the moment you were born. In the future, not only Venter but also the government will have a chance to own your genomic data. As an aside, Venter noted that policy makers ought to create genetic antidiscrimination laws to go along with genetic identity tracking.

Once there are multiple companies offering DNA sequencing services it seems inevitable that some will offer the option of their destroying their copy of your DNA sequence once they have finished sequencing it. In the long run personal DNA sequencing machines will provide a way to avoid allowing a company to know your DNA sequence in the first place. But at the same time those future portable cheap DNA sequencing machines will open up the possibility of someone grabbing some dandruff flakes or saliva drippings from another person and then sequencing that other person's DNA.

Then there is this possibility of governments wanting to take a DNA "fingerprint" of all people. It seems inevitable that some governments will implement such a scheme as described above. Is this a bad thing? Most identity faking is done for malicious and criminal reasons after all. Will the result be a more or less free society?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2002 October 29 11:54 AM  Biotech Society

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