Orbiting Tomorrow

Explore the dissolving boundary between science and science fiction with news from the front lines of discovery and imaginative speculation on how each one could change our world.

“Genetic surveillance”: the new identity theft?

An artist in New York is pioneering DNA portraits, extracting genetic material from trash to generate an image of the person who left it behind. “The project began with me, going about my daily life in the city, and coming across samples of human DNA everywhere I looked,” says Heather Dewey-Hagborg. “Hairs, nails, cigarette butts, chewing gum, we are shedding our DNA all over the place all the time, and we don’t even notice.”

But this artist spends more time in a lab then a studio. She extracts DNA samples from the found artifacts and looks for genetic indicators called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). These are gene expressions linked to physical characteristics such as ethnicity, hair and eye color, nose width, freckles, and even male pattern baldness. Then, using a program she designed herself, Dewey-Hagborg translates this code into genetic traits to construct a 3D model of a human face.

The project already has real-world applications. Currently, Dewey-Hagborg is working with the Delaware medical examiner’s office to try to identify the victim in a 20-year-old unsolved case by using remains to construct a portrait of the victim. Her rendering will provide investigators their first glimpse at what the victim looked like before her death.

“If I have your genome sequence, theoretically I can do more than just know very personal things about you,” says Dewey-Hagborg. “I can clone you. I can impersonate you. It’s a sci-fi scenario but it is a reality now.”

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Dewey-Hagborg originally pioneered her project to provoke thought about “genetic surveillance”. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition of old skills and new technology: while primative hunters followed physical trails of prints or scat, today’s tracker can use a single shed eyelash to determine not only locality but an entire DNA profile. Imagine sweeping a crime scene for all genetic evidence, rendering images of everyone who had been present, and broadcasting their faces to identify witnesses and suspects. It might also make it easy to frame someone for a crime: just plant a wad of their chewing gum and let the DNA do the rest.

The technology is already demonstrating its application in law enforcement, but it also promises disturbing possibilities on the criminal side. The ability to obtain someone’s genetic code suggests an entirely new type of identity theft. Combine a stolen gene sequence with high-quality CGI—or perhaps, in the near future, advanced cloning or 3D printing techniques—and the lines of fixed identity might permanently blur.

Someone could impersonate a powerful figure like a president or military official, influencing matters across the globe. Even fingerprints would no longer be unique. We’re all accustomed to protecting our bank account numbers, government ID numbers, and the like, but how will we maintain the integrity of our identities now that “personally identifiable information” includes our DNA?

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This entry was posted on June 2, 2013 by in Genetics, Technology and tagged , , , , , , .
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