Tag Archives: dna sequencing

Quoth the Raven: “It’s a Match!”

Years ago, when I first heard about online DNA match ser­vices, my reac­tion was some­thing to the effect of, “Stuff you put online lives for­ev­er, you no longer have con­trol of it, so what hap­pens when pri­va­cy breach­es hap­pen?”

 The recent high-pro­file US case of the alleged Gold­en State Killer was one exam­ple of the off-label use of DNA match­ing ser­vices that’s cap­tured the nation’s imag­i­na­tion.

While many peo­ple have a pre­con­ceived notion of DNA being unique, deci­sive, and absolute­ly air­tight, the real­i­ty is a touch more hum­bling, as mul­ti­ple news out­lets and law enforce­ment offi­cials have warned of the per­ils, error rates, and num­bers of false pos­i­tives involved in fam­i­ly match­ing. If any­thing, it rein­forces a need to fol­low the usu­al rules of inves­ti­ga­tion: strive to be more thor­ough, and always tread care­ful­ly.

While this par­tic­u­lar legal case has raised a lot of eye­brows, to me it seems to be more about the unmask­ing of a killer than the means by which the lat­est set of leads was gen­er­at­ed. This isn’t a new tech­nol­o­gy, it’s been around for quite some time. Police have used these ser­vices before, but those instances haven’t grabbed head­lines in the same way as the case of the Gold­en State Killer.

To the offi­cers involved, I salute your cre­ativ­i­ty and per­se­ver­ance. Hope­ful­ly, once jus­tice has tak­en its course and the case has been tried, you’ll have been able to give some much-need­ed clo­sure to the fam­i­lies of the vic­tims.

But that’s not why I’m writ­ing.

What’s prob­lem­at­ic about the main­stream­ing of genet­ic sequenc­ing and the sub­se­quent break­down of taboos sur­round­ing our most sen­si­tive per­son­al pos­ses­sion — the DNA code — is not the risk of false pos­i­tives or acci­den­tal misiden­ti­fi­ca­tion in a police inves­ti­ga­tion. It’s the line of oppor­tunists who are eager to acquire that data and bend it to their will for all man­ner of com­mer­cial, insur­ance, med­ical, and oth­er mis­us­es as peo­ple relax their guard and invite more and more strangers to the par­ty to play gate­keep­er to this extreme­ly sen­si­tive infor­ma­tion.

If you’ve ever been a vic­tim of iden­ti­ty theft, or if you’ve ever had some­one run up a bunch of unau­tho­rized charges on your cred­it card, you already have a glimpse of how it feels.

Your bank can issue a new cred­it card num­ber, but you don’t get a mul­li­gan once your DNA code makes it into the wild.

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