DNA2.0 or how to google your genome (and put it in a social network)

23andme_social If you haven’t watched Gattaga, this might be a good time for doing it.

23andme is a society funded with 10.000.000 dollars by Google. 23andme was co-founded by Anne Wojcicki, which is the wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

23andme sells the following service: for 1000 dollars, you send us your saliva and we send you a complete analysis of your DNA.

This is already enough scary, as sonnoprofondo points out:
“What could be the reaction of someone just learning she inherited a risk for a certain heart disease from her mother? How would you feel if your DNA tells that your father has typically german genes and blue eyes, while you have always thought the opposite? Would you accept easily the idea your 2 years-old son inherited from your the risk for a certain disease?”

But what is more scary is that 23andme will upload your genetic information to a secure database. Then with your own private login, you can then use our web-based interactive tools to 23andme will upload your genetic information to a secure database. Then with your own private login, you can then use our web-based interactive tools to explore your genome. You can discover your origins, learn what the latest genetic findings may mean for you, and connect genetically with friends, family, and others across the globe explore your genome. This is directly from their website.
So this is astonishing, and this is what they are up to (and remember they are funded by google which already knows almost everything about you).

Moreover it is not too hard to guess the password of someone and enter in her account. This is true at least until 23andme does not put in place authentication based on your physical characteristics (“Just spit on your Webcamera and we will know you are you …”) … Uhm, maybe after Gattaga you might consider watching Matrix again.

So, is this a promising market? That is, how many persons will be willing to pay $1000 for getting their DNA? I have no idea about this sector, but my fear is that there will be many. And once 23andme becomes the leading provider in this sector and considering the network effect (“invite your friend to connect genetically to you, by sending her/him this discounted coupon option for DNA analysis”), 23andme will be in a key position for our very very society.

Consequences? Difficult to imagine for me, as I’m not very imaginative. But let me try.
This long Wired article starts with: And what are physicians, most likely untrained in and unprepared for genomic medicine, to do when a patient comes in wielding a printout that indicates a particular variation of a particular gene? This new age of genomics comes with great opportunity — but also great quandaries.
Maybe someone misinterpreting her genome and committing suicide?
Maybe will it happen that someone (with a good genome she would like to show off) starts posting his genome on her blog/page? (Genome Widget anyone?) Will a potential employer first search the Web (GenomeSphere?) in order to find the potential employee’s genome and decide to hire her or not based on this? If the fraction of people who voluntarily post their genome becomes large enough, not posting your genome might be seen as suspect (“has this potential employee/date/friend something to hide?”).
As much as you can trust 23andme to have figure out Web security right, is a computer glitch unwantedly exposing some information totally impossible? What if the government asks for this data?

I don’t know. Is the fact I’m so scared just a symptom of me being too old for these new times? I can already hear people saying “this is only information, more information is always good, then you can make more informed decisions”. Uhm, I don’t know. Are you scared as well, my old friend?

And if you are wondering why the company is named 23andme … how many pairs of chromosomes do you think you have in your DNA? Yes, 23.

7 thoughts on “DNA2.0 or how to google your genome (and put it in a social network)

  1. Gammydodger

    I’m concerned too – let’s project this forward a few years. To participate in society in most of the developed world, any information about you that is worth anything will need to be stored electronically and be accessible online. Whom will you trust to keep that information accurate, accessible yet secure? How will you protect yourself from mergers and aquisitions where your data is being acquired by an unknown company?

    Thinking about where the rest of my information is already stored, what happens when all of this gets joined up and not by me. Am I happy about this? Bloody terrified. What am I doing? Becoming obsessive about my online identity. (http://www.realtea.net/inside_out)

  2. Gammydodger

    IMHO the problem is that a lot of services are being made available online for no monetary charge, but the businesses that provide them still need to make money. So they are trading on our attention and our data – this they ‘sell’ to advertisers who ultimately want to sell us something. In exactly the same way that television is paid for by advertising, the web is going the same way, except the information available is far richer for a marketer. 23andme stretches that concept one step further. Back to your question – what can we do? I think we need to regain control of the information about us. Take it out of the public domain and stop it being a tradable commodity. My blog (www.realtea.net) mentions a number of people who have tried to sell their own data, Tim Berners-Lee wrote about FOAF on ZDNet – all attempts to regain that control. Unlike television, the internet is a medium where we the people can make a difference and I believe that we are at a critical point where this is about to happen.

  3. paolo Post author

    I know about FOAF and XFN (microformats.org , check it!) but I’m much more pessimistic than you. People will trade privacy for easy-to-use and free tools. ;-(

  4. Anu

    I’m concerned too: observing Finns raging over Facebook as the place to be, seems that the people who just discovered it a month ago and for whom it’s the first & only form of online presence, will need to have it shoved on their face what the consequences of loss of privacy can be. And unfortunately I think it will take some major shit happening before it’s clear enough for them.

    Besides the loss of privacy and usual conspiracy theoristic favorites, I think there’s something fundamentally wrong in commoditizing people’s social lives and claiming ownership of their content. So XFN, FOAF, and non-google open-social surely get my vote.

    Maybe one way to help spread the alternatives to market-driven socializing would be to make the free (as in speech ;) solutions as easy to use as the commercial ones? Easier said than done, but most non-geeks would be far more open to open source anything if it was as user-friendly as the corresponding commercial-ad-driven-free piece of software.

  5. Gammydodger

    Anu, the Privacy Agreement on Microsoft HealthVault includes a section on Custodial Access – where as the owner of your own information you have the ability to grant custodial access to others – I assume it will be a role based access system behind this – and I would presume that the user interface would create an easy to use solution for access management to personal data. I advocate (http://www.realtea.net/personal_data_mgt) for a control system such as this to be embedded into the user interface of any organization that holds my data.

  6. paolo Post author

    Very complicated stuff. I’m a bit surprised the situation didn’t evolve too much in the last few months … or maybe I was just not paying too much attention ;)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *