DNA and Its Privacy
Coodly, Lavanya R.
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CitationCoodly, Lavanya R. 2019. DNA and Its Privacy. Master's thesis, Harvard Extension School.
Abstract[W]e can’t go anywhere without leaving a bread-crumb trail of identifying DNA matter. If we have no legitimate expectation of privacy in such bodily material, what possible impediment can there be to having the government collect what we leave behind, extract its DNA signature and enhance CODIS to include everyone?
—Judge Alex Kozinski, dissenting in United States v. Kincade
When you’ve licked a stamp on your tax return you’ve sent the government a DNA sample....
—Victor Weedn, Head of Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory
When we visit a doctor’s office and leave samples of blood or urine, sip a drink out of a glass in a restaurant, comb our hair, or visit a salon or a spa, it turns out that we are inadvertently leaving behind traces of our DNA. Almost every place we go, our genetic identity is discarded, even if it is in trace amount. Should the medical laboratory, restaurant, spa, or salon be permitted to collect the DNA left behind, store it indefinitely, and share or transfer our genetic material to another location without regulation? Why should we care about care about DNA ownership? This matters to us because DNA is a blueprint of who we are, differentiating each of us from the other. At the same time, DNA is inherited and can reveal blood relatives and extremely personal information that could potentially disclose details about us that we may not want others to find out. Susceptibility to genetic disease, color of hair and eyes, and even personal choices stand to become unraveled in our DNA code as scientific research continues to identify genes and functions.
Loss of ownership to our genetic information can occur in one of two major ways. First, DNA might be shed unintentionally. Second, DNA might be submitted voluntarily. In both cases, we lose legal ownership to our genetic information (DNA). As it stands today, it also turns out that our DNA is no longer our private property because, once unintentionally discarded or voluntarily submitted, we have potentially relinquished our rights to its exclusive proprietorship. One of the purported reasons for the lack of ownership status is that once left behind in a public space, DNA is considered discarded or abandoned and existing Fourth Amendment law does not seem to apply. Therefore, once it is considered abandoned, DNA has the potential of becoming public property, where the finder is the keeper who will ultimately have control over its use.
Advances in technologies have compounded the ways in which individual identities are evolving: genetic (DNA), informational (public records), and digital (cyberspace) identities are but a few examples. The time may now have come when the traditional U.S. Fourth Amendment analysis is no longer suited in the world in which we live, a world in which the body itself may become a rather archaic way of defining the individual.
This thesis contends that our DNA should not be considered abandoned when we discard it in our hair, skin, drinking cup, or cigarette butt. It argues that neither should DNA be considered “public” when we voluntarily give blood or urine to a doctor or employer for analysis while complying with existing rules and regulations, and the same holds true when we donate blood or organs to benefit society. This thesis supports placing legislation granting ownership and sole proprietorship of bodily fluids and along with it the cells and DNA contained within to the donor, whose permission must be sought before duplicating, testing, sharing, donating, or analyzing. Under this author’s view, failure to do so would be considered an infringement on the property rights of that individual, an offense that is punishable by law.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:42006723