May 14, 2003
Will The Death Of Genetic Privacy Hasten The End Of Freedom?

Writing in The New Atlantis Christine Rosen has written a very useful survey of some of the current and potential future uses of individual human genetic information entitled Liberty, Privacy, and DNA Databases.

And yet, step-by-step and often for defensible reasons, we are paving the way for the universal, compulsory, DNA sampling of citizens. These are not simply the musings of science fiction; they are the logical conclusion of the technological infrastructure of DNA identification—such as Britain’s Biobank—that we are eagerly building. In the beginning, the reasons for such databases will be familiar, modern, liberal, and compelling: to cure disease, to catch criminals, to ensure that children have a healthy beginning to their lives. But the end in sight is a drastically different society and way of life. We may come to know too much about ourselves to truly live in freedom; and our public and private institutions may know so much about us that equal treatment and personal liberty may become impossible.

My biggest problem with her essay comes at the end (partially excerpted above) where she argues that the loss of genetic privacy will contribute to a loss of liberty. Certainly the more we know about each other's abilities, weaknesses, and predispositions the more we will judge each other differently. But we already do that using countless other means of knowing about each other. Harvard graduates are routinely assumed to be much brighter and more together than high school drop-outs. Someone driving an expensive car will be treated with more respect by police when pulled over than someone driving a junker. Good-looking people are treated better than less attractive people. People routinely hire other people based on advice they hear thru grapevines of social and business connections. Countless other examples can be cited.

Christine Rosen does not flesh our the motivations for her conclusion in sufficient detail for the reader to know why she views the loss of genetic privacy as a threat to liberty. Possibly she'll do so in a future essay (hint, hint). However, her mention of equal treatment in conjunction with personal liberty provides a clue. Is meaning here equal treatment before the law? Or is it equal treatment in the workplace? Is being treated equally the same as being treated fairly? Do people have to know less about us in order to treat us fairly?

Let us look at some of the ways that genetic information can now or will in the future be able to be used:

  • To know that a person is who they say they are.
  • To know who is a person's genetic parent or child.
  • To identify who was in a particular place carrying out a particular criminal act.
  • To idenfity who was in a partcular place carrying out some non-crimnal act that is of interest (e.g. who left dirty dishes in the sink).
  • To more accurately predict a person's risk for various diseases.
  • To more accurately predict a person's intelligence.
  • To more accurately predict a person's probability of engaging in various criminal behaviors.
  • To more accurately predict a person's desires.
  • To more accurately predict a person's level of motivation or some personality characteristic.

How helpful will genetic sequence information be for the purpose of prediction of characteristics or behaviors of a person will depend on just how big an influence genetics has on various aspects of personality and intelligence. Certainly physical environmental factors, chance accidents during embryonic development, and experiences all have impacts that limit the value genetic sequence information by itself. In order for genetic sequence information to have a significant impact on how people treat each other the sequence information has to have some predictive value or it will have more in common with horoscope information as a means to judge people.

Suppose genetic information does have some predictive value for each of the above listed purposes. Is it wrong for people to use it to help make guesses about the potentials and likely behaviors of others? If so, why? As a practical matter we need to judge each other and do so daily. If we can do it more accurately will that make us treat each other more or less fairly overall? Keep in mind that our judgements are frequently wrong and sometimes unfair. But they are also frequently necessary.

Put yourself in the position of a job interviewer. You have one position and twenty applicants. Suppose the availability of DNA sequencing information would cause you to choose a different person to hire. Is it wrong to use that information? After all, the person who you would not hire if you did not have the DNA sequencing information would not have been hired because of some other reasons that the DNA sequencing information effectively weighs against. Is it fair for you to have access to that other information but not the DNA sequencing information? Judgements are always less than perfectly accurate. DNA sequencing information may make judgements more accurate on average. Is this a bad thing? If so, why?

Must the death of privacy translate into the death of freedom? Science fiction writer David Brin argues in his non-fiction book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? that we really don't have a choice about the future loss of privacy. Technological advances will make it too easy for individuals and governments to do various forms of survelliance. But if we allow not just governments but also individuals to use the survellance technologies then we do not have to wind up living under an authoritarian or totalitarian state.

There are technological trends in biotechnology that will make personal DNA privacy impossible to maintain as well. The development of nanopore DNA sequencers combined with microfluidics will eventually allow the construction of very cheap, small, portable, and easy to operate DNA sequencing devices. Such devices will be impossible to effectively ban. They will be able to be made to look like other devices and will be easily smuggled. Also, surreptitious acquisition of cell samples will be too easy to be prevented. For example, a woman will be able to get a cell sample from a date by just giving him a full mouth kiss at the end of the evening and then spitting her mouth's saliva into a cup when she closes her front door. Or she can do it by running her hand thru the guy's hair to get some loose hairs that have a bit of cells at their ends. Or if a person has dandruff on their jacket and leaves the jacket on their chair to temporarily leave the room of a business meeting then someone else will be able to quickly get a bit of the dandruff off the jacket.

I'd really like to see more specific explanations of how increased information availability will make a society less just and less free overall. We face a future where the quantity of available information of all kinds looks set to increase enormously. If there will be harmful effects then the mechanisms by which these harms will be done ought to be articulated in greater detail.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 May 14 06:42 PM  Biotech Privacy

Greg Smith said at April 6, 2005 8:53 PM:


Unfortunately your evaluations about genetic privacy issues are accurate. However, this is a topic that we cannot write off as another consequence of our society. I think this one is on God's radar screen and He does not want us abusing this privledge of knowing too much about His creations.

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