Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Genetic Privacy at Risk

By Michael Cook

US intelligence agencies may be analysing our communications on a massive scale, but genetic data is already proving just as vulnerable.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge, a bioethics newsletter.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

By now you must be used to the idea of the US National Security Agency siphoning up your Facebook account, your email account, your Skype calls, your phone records, your chats and your browsing history. What’s left for them to trawl through?

How about your genome?

As the public reels from revelations about how much American information intelligence agencies have been gathering about foreigners and their own citizens, few have yet twigged to the vulnerability of genetic data.

“We are at a crucial juncture brought about by the confluence of new technologies for data generation, bioinformatics, and information access on the one hand, which seem to create new risks to privacy, and the public’s desire to benefit from these advances for a variety of personal and health reasons on the other hand,” scientists from the US National Institutes of Health wrote earlier this year in Science.

Violations of genetic privacy are already beginning to surface. In 2005 a teenager born from an anonymous sperm donation tracked down his biological father by combining Y chromosome data with genealogical information. Whatever you think about the dad’s ethics, promises made to him about anonymity proved to be illusory.

In June, London’s Times splashed the genetic history of Prince Harry and Prince William across its front page – information eagerly taken up by...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.