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Credit: Antonio Zulgaldia

Gina Kolata’s piece in The New York Times, Poking Holes in Genetic Privacy, is stirring a lot of debate. In the wake of the NSA leaks that makes sense. And genetic privacy has always been a “hot button” issue for obvious reasons, as personal genomics transforms from a futuristic projection to a ubiquitous part of our lives. It seems to me that there’s a spectrum of reasonable objection here. I don’t think it’s a big deal if you are exposed for your “true ethnicity.” Yes, if we lived in Nazi Germany this might matter, but we don’t, and it doesn’t. There’s the reality that ethnicity is easy to ascertain without consent just by looking at someone. On the other hand if you or someone in your family carries a highly penetrant autosomal disease, then I think the rationale for genetic privacy is much stronger.

But it’s not just genetics. Some people have asserted that Google Glass is a replacement for smartphones. If so, we should be concerned if we’re concerned about privacy more generally. For example a few months ago I was asking a friend of mine the age of her father. She didn’t have any idea with any degree of precision, so I just looked up who she was related to using free online databases with my Android phone. Her father’s age was listed right there. Additionally I was surprised to find that he’d lived in the Pacific Northwest 30 years ago, though my friend seemed uninterested in this biographical data. Rather, she was a touch alarmed that within 30 seconds I retrieved this sort of information, and incidentally noted her sisters’ names, residences and employment histories.

Imagine this sort of functionality, and more so, integrated with something like Google Glass. Yes, I understand that initial privacy concerns will mute the creepier possibilities, but it’s likely a matter of time before someone enables functionality which is initially forbidden. Google won’t have a monopoly on this technology indefinitely. In terms of interpersonal relationships one could easily imagine artificial intelligence which is optimized toward tracking the eye movements of others and constantly outputting a stream of analytics toward the end user. As a concrete example consider a woman who is aware that her significant other has a history of straying. In social situations she could simply turn on a “head tracker” which would generate a frequency distribution over time of who he was looking at over the course of an hour at a party. Of course this sort of thing occurs intuitively and ad hoc already, but with the raw data recorded one might be able to generate much more powerful, persuasive, and incriminating inferences. This might elicit an adaptive response on the part of her boyfriend, but that might be the aim in the first place!

Starting ~10,000 years ago mankind took the step which introduced us to the world of privacy. Rather than small to medium sized bands and villages governed by something like Dunbar’s number we had the option of anonymity. In the 20th century urban life has allowed for a possibility of relative withdrawal from social contacts and connections, if one so chooses. Such a choice was not available to our ancestors, who were inextricably dependent upon their social network to buffer them from the vicissitudes of fate. The scenario which I’m outlining above, which I think is highly likely, does not correspond in the details to the ancient villages. Rather, the modern global village expands the scope of those in your potential social network up to whole world.

The reality is of course that you won’t know billions and billions. But in crowded urban societies you’ll have access to personal details and information on nearly everyone you interact with, which may run into tens of thousands per year, which is greater by orders of magnitude from the low hundred posited for our ancestors. We shall adapt, I have no doubt about that, but how is the question. I envisage that some will become “privacy Amish,” creating retro communities bound together by the possibility of anonymity. For the majority there will emerge new rules and norms as to what is gauche and what is polite. Interesting times.

• Category: Science • Tags: Privacy, Technology 
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I do talk periodically on this weblog about the coming ‘transparent society.’ The main reason I bring up the issue is that I think it is probably inevitable, and, I think we’re sliding toward it without even reflecting on it too much. Many people are very surprised at how little time it takes to find information on them in Spokeo and Pipl. Curious about where someone you lost touch with from high school has lived? Go to Intelius.

Rereading David Brin’s original 1996 essay introducing the idea in Wired I’m struck by the fixation on old-fashioned cameras. To me, what people do is almost less interesting than what they’ve done. How much did they buy their house for? Where did they go to university? Did they graduate? Who did they marry? Interestingly, much of this information is offered up freely by the individuals themselves.

And yet what about our genetic code? With the recent 23andMe sale (which continues on, with provisions) I noticed people on Facebook worrying about privacy. Interestingly WikiLeaks has revealed that American diplomats were encouraged to obtain the DNA of foreign notables. Why would they do this? My first thought was that perhaps it would be an easy way to blackmail powerful cuckolds! Though this didn’t seem to cramp Adnan Kashoggi’s style. I assume that powerful individuals don’t have to worry about divulging their disease risks, since they’ll be taken care of. But the reality is that the science is simply not there for a great deal of return when it comes to risk variants. Below is a screenshot of my risks for various diseases from 23andMe as judged from a few single nucleotide variants:


First, these are risks assuming a European genetic background. Which I don’t have. So there’s a problem right there, but 23andMe helpfully notes this boldly if you click through. But setting that aside, I know my risks for Type 2 Diabetes are much greater than average. Why? I have a family history of the disease! That’s why I’m obsessed with visceral fat.

The point is that right now family history is a much better predictor of your risks of a given disease than anything else. Not only does this capture missing heritability, but there is a natural correlation between families and environmental risk factors (or lack thereof). Using the breast cancer risk assessment tool it seems that if you have one first-degree relative who has had the disease you double your own odds of coming down with it over a five year period (though the risks over any given five year period are still low). There has been a lot of warranted attention paid to the BRCA genes, but what about the ability of insurers to digitally analyze the obituaries of your relatives and predict your own probability of death and disease?

I’m not saying that one shouldn’t be worried about divulging one’s genetic data. But it’s only a small piece of the puzzle of what we’re losing.

• Category: Science • Tags: Privacy, Technology, Transparent Society 
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The Washington Post‘s blogger-journalist Dave Weigel has a post up where he preemptively apologizes for stuff he posted on an “off-the-record” e-list,. Extracts are going to be published by a gossip site. Journalists are the tip of the iceberg; privacy is fast becoming a total fiction, remember that. We’re slowly drifting toward David Brin’s model of a “transparent society”, but it’s happening so fluidly that people aren’t even noticing. And yet as I have noted before, people are resisting the push to merge all their personas into one. Interesting times.

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Facebook, Privacy, Technology 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"