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Gene Genie – your genome may soon be on a smartphone app

DNA

By Simon Davies

This week’s New Scientist reports on a smartphone app that will allow you to carry around an encrypted copy of your genome. The magazine notes that with prices for DNA sequencing falling fast, this app may not be as futuristic as it sounds.

The true “privacy problem” with nearly all information-based systems emerges when a single-purpose technology becomes a platform or a pipe

The app – named Genodroid – is being developed by a team led by Emiliano De Cristofaro at Xerox’s PARC lab in Palo Alto, California. The team is investigating how people might safely transport the personal information stored in their genome.

The ability to keep our genetic profile in a pocket does present the potential to access a variety of personalised medicine services such as a prescription for drugs tailored to our own genetic make-up, or – for more ordinary purposes – compare our ancestry with that of a friend.

“A digitised genome reveals a treasure trove of very personal data as well as information about your siblings and current or future progeny,” De Cristofaro told New Scientist. “However, these wonderful advances and prospects are rife with serious privacy risks,” he adds.

How right he is – and how refreshing for an app developer to sound the privacy alarm so early in the Venture Capital cycle.

The true “privacy problem” with nearly all information-based systems emerges when a single-purpose technology becomes a platform or a pipe designed for multiple purposes.

Then with the emergence of face.com, which created a face recognition “pipe” that fuelled platforms such as those in social networking, a whole new privacy dimension started to take shape.

Take face recognition for example. When that biometric was confined to narrow functions in which the individual interacted with a single system (say, a perimeter security system for a building)  it remained a relatively harmless technology. There was little or no linkage with other systems.

the essential problem is that they see the world in terms of “good” and “bad” players.

Then with the emergence of face.com, which created a face recognition “pipe” that fed platforms such as those in social networking, a whole new privacy dimension started to take shape. The capacity for universal use induced all the most aggressive privacy threats, fueled by the loss of control by individuals.

The same applies with the genome app. While the technology remains under the control of its owner the privacy threats are limited (chaos protects privacy). Create a “platform” for universal usage, and institutions start to demand compliance – and those same institutions start to share the data.

The developers have created a cryptographic open source base for the app. but the essential problem is that they see the world in terms of “good” and “bad” players. Good players have permission to access the code; bad players don’t. This of course is a simplistic approach. Most people are likely to be concerned about third party access to their genome even if it’s by a “good” player using the appropriate permissions.

Yes, the team are aware of the risks, but in creating the potential for universal use they will also create the gateway to a new market for genetic disclosure. That may be no bad thing, but limitations – technical limitations – need to be embedded right now. Legislative protections will be of little or no use.