DNA Databases, Privacy and Targeted Ads

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As of mid-2006, at least six states plus the federal government required DNA sampling before criminal conviction. Then in November 2006, Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the state law establishing a DNA database and requiring a biological specimen for DNA testing was in fact unconstitutional. It violates the fourth amendment, the appeals court declared.

Which likely means that the Supreme Court will have to step in and look at this issue before too long, especially if the law is challenged in other states (which is likely now that precedent is set).

Why should anyone care? Well, aside from the plain old creepiness and annoyance factor of having your DNA analyzed and put in a big government database when you are accused of a crime -- even one you did not commit and are not convicted for -- there's the question of how that information will be used.

For one thing, can the database's information integrity be assured? If mistakes are made, will people be able to find out and correct it? Other government databases suffer from this problem: for example, no-fly lists have mistakenly grounded completely normal, innocent people with names which might coincidentally be roughly similar to those entered into the database as possible potential suspected terrorists (based on no particular standards of evidence). Since there is no way to check your own status in such a database, nor any process to correct such errors, the database's information is next to useless. Yet it still gets used, and still ruins the plans of many a traveler trying to go on vacation, get home to family or go to a business conference.

The same deal is likely to happen with any database where proper care isn't taken to ensure the integrity and provide for catching and correcting errors. The problem is, such databases are historically used heavily and assumed accurate even after holes are demonstrated in their integrity. So having these huge DNA databases can lead to some major problems.

What happens when the database gets used for things other than its original intention (which naturally happens with such an apparently valuable information resource)? What happens if, later on, people propose laws restricting the marriage of two people whose genetic code would lead to critically disabled children - "sorry, you have to consult the government database before you can get married". What happens if, at some point, private companies contract out access to the database for other purposes, at first maybe to help verify identity for banking transactions, or to track down biological parents for adoptees. Later on, insurance companies will use this information to set your rates - "sorry, you have to pay a much higher premium if you carry a particular allele at gene locus M314LQ6 on chromosome 13 because it has been correlated with a slightly higher risk of dying of cardiovascular complications". The database says your DNA has this allele, so you pay more. Can't argue with the database.

Honestly, I think this sort of privacy invasion seems inevitable. And it comes from much more than information databases, or using our DNA Gattaca-style (this will, I guarantee, happen within our lifetimes). It will also come from technology like RFID chips (radio-frequency identification), the tiny ultra-cheap little chips that broadcast out a signal when pinged by a reader. They're used right now to help track inventory in warehouses, to track high-value, easy-to-steal items in stores (Walmart put them on razors), in ID cards granting access to restricted buildings, etc. They will soon be cheap enough to be in every stamp and every item you purchase in a store. And the new Internal Protocol system (IPv6) will have enough internet addresses to assign one to every square centimeter on Earth, so if they want to track items individually, they'll be able to soon. RFID will also soon be mandatory on government-issued ID in Britain, and it won't be long before we follow here in the states with our upcoming national ID.

All this despite evidence that they are horribly insecure, that someone can steal the data on such a chip from a distance and have access to all the data, or manipulate it to their advantage. Yes, it's handy to be able to just swipe your credit card near something (or walk through a scanner) and have your groceries deducted without having to push any buttons. Yes, it's handy for companies to be able to track items in a store -- or potentially after they have left the store (the originating company aims to create a global satellite tracked database of every item containing such a chip). But it also means other people can just swipe your credit card information by passing within a few feet of you (or from across a room or street, given a decent reader). Identity theft becomes easier, despite this technology being proposed as a security measure. Are we safer from terrorism with these sort of IDs issued by the state, when anyone can hack and alter them with relative ease?

And getting back to the idea of tracking every item purchased at a store, even after it has left the store. Think of all the data that companies -- clothing stores, grocery stores, whoever -- will be able to accumulate on their customers' habits and item use given this technology. They will be able to target advertising much more directly -- personalized advertising, assaulting you with ads for new jeans the day your old jeans wear out, harassing you with ads for mustard because the one in your fridge is getting a little low. If you don't think this is possible, look at what grocery and other stores do now to track your purchasing habits -- membership cards with sales prices only available to those with a card from the store, so that they can tell exactly what you buy (note banks keep track of all non-cash purchases, and some have argued cash money will go away before long).

Targeted advertising has proven itself effective over the internet market: cookies track what city you live in, what websites you visit, what you buy online, what Amazon items you've browsed recently, the words scanned from your Gmail messages, and allow targeted banner and text ads based on your history. It's huge right now in cyberspace marketing, and it's going to grow here in meatspace very quickly.

Frankly, the privacy we are used to is going to disappear. Quickly, in a historical sense, but slow enough in a modern everything-changes-fast sense that we will get used to it in new fads and new techno-gadgets before we realize the long-term effects we've started creating. The world of the future -- and I'm talking still during our own lifetime -- will be drastically different, I think, insofar as privacy goes. And yet most people won't notice, because they'll be getting used to these things in little increments. Soon people will think it downright odd why anyone would want or expect to keep private the items they've purchased (and from where and for how much), or their medical history, or where their car travels (GPS tracking combined with a database -- you know, so insurance companies and cops can verify whether or not your vehicle was traveling the speed limit when it got in that traffic accident).

Can't stop progress, whatever that is. Just interesting to observe it as it approaches, and speculate on how it's going to change our world and how we experience it. Many of us still think of privacy as a right afforded to us that should be protected from government encroachment as much as possible (i.e. cops or military shouldn't be able to just enter your house for the hell of it and see if you are doing or possess anything illegal). But such ideas may become very rare and old-fashioned in the coming world.

Originally Written: 11-16-06
Last Updated: 01-28-07