What can be more private than our genes, the basic biological blueprint that makes each of use unique and human?
Genes are composed of DNA, and in them, you can read not just whether our eyes are blue or brown or our hair is red or blonde, but things less subtle than the obviously physical. For example, scientists have found that in certain people, there is a genetic disposition to shyness.
Our genes also predispose some of us to genetic diseases, such as Huntington's disease, which killed the folk singer Woody Guthrie. And they can also make it more likely that some of us will contract cancer or will be prone to high blood pressure and heart disease.
DNA is starting to take center stage in the privacy wars. There are great fears that DNA profiling can be misused by individuals, businesses, and governments. In particular, people worry that massive databases could be created of people's genetic profiles and that the information could be sold to the highest bidder and used for inappropriate purposes.
Most people don't realize it, but these databases already exist. For example, those in the military must submit genetic samples to the Department of Defense, which puts them into the Pentagon's DNA database. The database's purpose is to make it easier to identify the remains of soldiers who have been killed.
Hospitals, of course, take genetic samples as well to test for a variety of genetic diseases.
Law enforcement uses DNA profiles to help catch and convict those who commit crimes. Individual states have their own DNA databases. In 1994, the DNA Identification Act established an FBI-run national DNA database, called Combined DNA Identification System (CODIS). CODIS links together all the state databases, so someone can search the DNA database of all the states.
There are plenty of good reasons for establishing these DNA databasesthey can help solve crimes, jail criminals, and help keep people healthier. But there is also a great deal of danger as well. DNA profiles have the potential to be perhaps the greatest invaders of people's privacy ever created. The most intimate parts of our lives could theoretically be sold to the highest bidder and be used to deny people jobs or healthcare or to mark them as potential future criminals.
Barry Steinhardt, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology and Liberty Program, pointed to some of these concerns when he testified before Congress against CODIS, "While DNA databases may be useful to identify criminals, I am skeptical that we will ward off the temptation to expand their use."
Will Steinhardt be right? It's still too early to know. The issue has yet to be decided in court, and the use of DNA profiles is in its infancy, apart from their use by law enforcement. Only the future will tell….