Back in 2019, a US Navy officer warned against the use of at-home ancestry test kits. “Be careful who you send your DNA to,” said Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, during a speech on nuclear deterrence in Washington, DC. “There’s a number of those companies where you can go and find out what your makeup is. That’s a lot of information. You learn a lot about yourself and so does the company [that]’s doing it.”
According to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at the time, more than 26 million people had taken at-home ancestry tests. Based on the rate at which the public was purchasing the kits, this number was predicted to jump to at least 100 million by 2021.
Fast forward to 2022, a US House Intelligence Committee member has now reiterated these warnings by highlighting how information collected by DNA-testing companies like MyHeritage, Ancestry.com and 23andMe could be used to develop bioweapons targeting specific groups of Americans or even individuals.
Representative Jason Crow made the comments during an appearance at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, saying many Americans are far too willing to give up their DNA information to private companies.
“You can actually take someone’s DNA, you know, their medical profile, and you can target a biological weapon that will kill that person or take them off the battlefield or make them inoperable,” Crow said, as noted by Axios. “You can’t have a discussion about this without talking about privacy in commercial data and the protection of commercial data, because expectations of privacy have degraded over the last 20 years.” The lawmaker also added how younger generations have “very little expectation of privacy,” as per polling data.
“People will very rapidly spit into a cup and send it to 23andMe and get really interesting data about their background—and guess what? Their DNA is now owned by a private company,” he continued. “It can be sold off… with very little intellectual property protection or privacy protection, and we don’t have legal and regulatory regimes that deal with that. That data is actually going to be procured and collected by our adversaries for the development of these systems.”
In July 2022, the Washington Examiner reported how privately-owned databases could be easily leveraged to create bioweapons like the ones touted by Crow. The publication explained that DNA belonging to a target, or even a close relative of a target, could be stolen and used to develop a biological weapon effective only against that person. The technology hence harbours the unsettling potential to initiate highly-targeted assassination programmes while also making it harder for killers to be tracked down—similar to the horrific case of genetic paparazzi who are predicted to start stealing genetic material of public figures for reproductory and other nefarious purposes.
According to Senator Joni Ernst, such scientific advancements can be equally dangerous if they are designed to target only a certain breed of farm animal or crop rather than humans. “Highly pathogenic avian influenza, African swine fever—all of these things have circulated around the globe, but if targeted by an adversary, we know that it brings about food insecurity,” she said at the Aspen Security Forum. “Food insecurity drives a lot of other insecurities around the globe.”
The lawmaker continued by stating how there’s a need to make sure we’re not only securing human beings from the genetic threat but also the organic supplies that will sustain us. Ernst also believes food will be increasingly weaponised in the future as she pointed out how Russia has already armed the same in the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Although 23andMe has repeatedly stated that it does not sell the private information of its customers, the Daily Mail noted how other DNA companies have previously provided databases to law enforcement upon request. Meanwhile, several startups have also cropped up on the genomic horizon—including dating app digiD8 which allows users to match with potential love interests based on information about their genes.
Heck, 23andMe has itself offered users the chance to go from a curious trip down ancestry lane online to a literal trip down ancestry lane by partnering and sharing data with Airbnb—ultimately using DNA to capitalise on heritage travel. Taking all of this into consideration, the concept of ‘bioterrorism’ by leveraging online DNA databases doesn’t seem so far-fetched anymore in 2022.
A DNA dystopia could actually be on the horizon sooner than you’d think according to a recent in-depth essay by law professors Liza Vertinsky and Yaniv Heled—from the University of Maryland and Georgia State University respectively—for The Conversation. In it, they bring attention to groups of, what they describe, as “genetic paparazzi.” In other words, there are those that would make it their mission to hunt the DNA of notable figures of interest in the public eye like celebrities and politicians for their own gain.
Perhaps it’s been the overload of spy blockbuster movies throughout history that have led to an onslaught of DNA paranoia—you know, that conspiracy-like fear of taking a 23andMe test because ‘you don’t want the government to have it’—but for these law experts, such concerns aren’t as crazy as it may seem. Heck, we’ve even seen politicians like Emmanuel Macron famously refuse a Russian COVID-19 test for fear of DNA theft.
The pair argue that as interest in genetics technology grows in the mainstream, this could pave the way for more incentivised reasons to get a hold of some of that famous DNA. The law experts suggest that this is quickening at a rate in which the legal system won’t be able to keep up with. In fact, signs of that have already been made clear for a few years.
Futurism made note of this in the example of Madonna, who in 2018, lost her attempt to prevent DNA-laden items of hers (like her underwear and hairbrush) from being auctioned. The move to protect her genetic data has been something witnessed for over a decade, with The Conversation essay noting that the obsessive hiring of cleaning crews to sterilise her dressing rooms is not the inane paranoia once perceived but was actually the valid ringing of alarm bells on the risk of DNA theft.
The unbridled obsession to own celebrity-touched things is nothing new as both publications mention. From historic items sold like Justin Timberlake’s half-eaten French toast and Britney Spears’ alleged pregnancy test, to more recent examples like the gifting of a lock of Marilyn Monroe’s hair to Kim Kardashian—the phenomenon shows no signs of slowing. Not only is the whole endeavour distasteful and brings up necessary conversations about the unhealthy ownership of people in the public eye, according to these experts, it’s also dangerous. Such items (if authentic) could contain usable genetic material.
“In addition, as genetic technologies continue to evolve, fears about using surreptitiously collected genetic material for reproductive purposes via in vitro gametogenesis become more than just paranoia,” the pair wrote. Maybe Drake wasn’t entirely crazy for putting hot sauce in his used condoms to “kill his sperm” then (well, maybe just a little). What this worryingly means is that there is untapped potential for such stolen genetic material to be used for reproduction, most likely without the individual’s knowledge or consent. While the theft of a person’s DNA is considered “an intrusion” of their consent and is undoubtedly a violating and “deeply personal” invasion, Vertinsky and Heled note that there actually very few laws set up with the intention to protect the interests of such genetic paparazzi victims.
Resolving that space in the legal system has to become more vital than ever as DNA sequencing continues its heavy commercialisation, Futurism noted. And it’s true. Airbnb and 23andMe teaming up to use your DNA for holiday recommendations, digiD8 using your DNA data to tell you who not to date and even Spotify partnering with AncestryDNA to bring you DNA-optimised playlists are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the genetic game. But it gets scarier. Without any real structural law in place, what’s stopping our biometric data from falling into the wrong hands?
Yuval Harari, known for his infamous book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, made note of this in 2021 when he warned that humans could soon be hacked by AI, “What we have seen so far, it’s corporations and governments collecting data about where we go, who we meet, what movies we watch. The next phase is surveillance going under our skin.”
So, the lawyers continued, when such cases continue to surface in courtrooms, “judges will need to confront fundamental questions about how genetics relates to personhood and identity, property, health and disease, intellectual property and reproductive rights.”