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‘Genetic paparazzi’ stealing celebrities’ DNA are impending, professors warn

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 Spearsalleged 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.”

Your DNA knows what you should be getting high on

Since the DNA testing craze began, we’ve seen the technology being used in some pretty unexpected places. From testing migrant children who have been separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border and are lost in a chaotic system, to Spotify claiming to enrich your listening experience by tapping into your heritage. In fact, you can now use your DNA home-testing kit results to find the perfect skincare, tailor your diet better, find out which sport your child should take up and even understand what skills you have to help you on ski slopes. But one market that has taken a liking to DNA matching is set to grow exponentially with its new personalised angle: the cannabis industry in the U.S.

Strain Genie is a platform that claims to match your DNA results with the type of weed that’s right for you. It does this by partnering with home-testing kits such as 23AndMe, MyHeritage, Ancestry and FamilyTreeDNA, or if you’re new to the field of DNA testing, you can simply request a Cannabis DNA test kit from the company directly. Whether you upload a .txt file from previous results or spit into a brand new test tube, it takes about 24 hours for Strain Genie to process the DNA information and generate a personalised 19-page cannabis report, just for you.

The ‘Cannabis Health Report’ sets out to identify genetic traits in users, such as an elevated risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or carrying a genotype that means you have a reduced CBD metabolism. In an example report Strain Genie makes available on its website, it shows that tips inside the report include a personalised recommendation for the ratio of THC and CBD according to each users’ genotype, which means users can begin to customise the products they consume accordingly. For example, a strand of weed that helps to stimulate memory cells will be recommended to those prone to Alzheimer’s.  

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Following a general introduction to THC, CBD and genes, the Strain Genie report takes its user on a more visual journey into what it has divided into categories of benefits each user can reach with different cannabis products, and which genres they might benefit from the most. From ‘chill’, ‘energise’, and ‘sleep’, to ‘create’ and ‘medicate’, there is a pathway for each and everyone one of us in the magical world of personalised marijuana. According to Strain Genie, that is.

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In a recent article on The Hustle, a media company operating inside your email in the form of newsletters, Zachary Crockett explains how Nicco Reggente, co-founder of Strain Genie, first entered the industry with WoahStock four years earlier in a bid to create the ‘Netflix of weed’. The CEO had co-created a platform “that collects data on thousands of marijuana strains, asks users to fill out a medical questionnaire, then enlists an algorithm to ‘intelligently’ recommend the right products for the right people.” Writes Crockett. With a PhD in neuroscience, Reggente told The Hustle that “I thought, maybe I could leverage DNA to gather information about my customers and help them make better purchasing decisions.” So it only makes sense that the next step for Reggente was to enter the DNA realm and elevate the type of personalisation he offers his customers that one step further.

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Having anxiety issues? Purple Voodoo is here to chill you out. Writer’s’ block? Fear no more, Lemon Wreck wants to get your creative juices flowing. And when you think about it, matching strands of cannabis to genotype characteristics makes sense; perhaps more sense than matching a new pair of skis to your DNA.

The legalisation and monetisation of the cannabis market is on a mega rise in the U.S. and other countries where it has been legalised, and is expected to reach $146.4 billion by end of 2025, according to a new report by Grand View Research, Inc. So it comes as no surprise that Reggente is on a mission to lead its personalisation aspect with Strain Genie and WoahStock. Sure there are some questions surrounding the validation of DNA testing and how accurate the results really are. But spending your money on making sure you are getting high on the right substance doesn’t seem like a bad place to start.