Bioethics @ TIU

One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s DNA Treasure

Posted May 15th, 2018 by Mark McQuain

Last month, investigators used big data analysis, public DNA genealogy websites and “Discarded DNA” to identify the Golden State Killer (WSJ subscription needed), an individual believed responsible for over 12 murders, greater than 50 rapes and over 100 burglaries in California between 1974 through 1986. While justice may be served if the legal case remains solid, there are some interesting bioethical issues that warrant discussion.

This blog has previously discussed the ethics of searching reportedly anonymized databases and the ability of algorithms to “unanonymize” the data (see HERE and HERE). The current technique used in the Golden State Killer case takes this one step further. Using a public genealogy database site, where individuals looking for distant relatives voluntarily share their personal DNA samples, investigators looked into these databases for partial DNA matches. A partial DNA match means that the investigators were looking for any relatives of the original suspect hoping to gain any identifying information of the relative, leading back to the original suspect. Then, using this narrower group of DNA relatives, investigators literally collected DNA samples this group of people unwittingly left behind, such as skin cells on a paper cup in the trash, so called discarded or abandoned DNA.

One man’s trash is another man’s DNA treasure.

Presently, neither the method of partial DNA search of public voluntary genealogy databases nor the collection of discarded DNA samples violates the 4th Amendment regarding unreasonable search and seizure. Neither the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) nor the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) provide protection as none of the data relates to health care records or employment, respectively.

Shouldn’t some law or regulation prevent my personal DNA code from becoming public, particularly if I have not taken steps to publicize it on one of the many public voluntary genealogy sites?

Since your DNA is the ultimate physical marker of personal identity, how much control do you or should you have over it? While you may wish to live a life of anonymity, your extroverted cousin who voluntarily provides her DNA to a public DNA database has just unwittingly publicized some portion of your family DNA as well as traceable personal family data that may allow others to know more about you than you desire. An energetic sleuth dumpster-diving your trash can retrieve your actual DNA. I shred my mail to avoid my social security number or other personal financial information from being obtained and used for identity theft. How do I “shred my DNA” to prevent it from being similarly recovered from my trash?

What may someone do with my DNA information obtained using these techniques. What should someone be able to do?

You could not have convinced me back in 2001 that anyone would spend money to build cars with 360 video equipment and figure out optimal routes that would eventually become what is now Google Street View. Might not someone do the same thing with trash-sourced DNA samples, perhaps Google DNA View?

We already have figured out the garbage truck routes.

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