Would you give the government your DNA? That may be a step too far in the quest for a hi-tech future

Peter Kammerer says we need to be cautious about giving away too much of ourselves, especially our DNA, as governments champion innovation and technology. Dubai’s plan to DNA sequence the entire population should raise concerns

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 March, 2018, 12:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 March, 2018, 7:08pm

Innovation and technology – how many times have we heard governments use those words? It’s hard to argue against embracing such ideas, given that it’s “the future”, as we’re repeatedly told. But we also need to pay close attention to what sort of innovation and technology authorities have in mind and how they intend to use them. Dubai’s plan to DNA sequence the city’s entire population to ensure healthy citizens is a case in point.

Health authorities in the United Arab Emirates launched the project last month, with the genome sequences of UAE citizens to be mapped first, followed by residents over the coming two years. Samples will be taken, the DNA sequences analysed and data banks set up for the results. It’s part of the Dubai 10X initiative, a programme being pushed by ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid to implement technologies expected to be commonplace in a decade. The official aim is to promote Dubai as a “city of the future”, but social engineering and surveillance also come to mind given the country’s authoritarian political system.

But as technologically cool and hip as Dubai may want to be, it has already been beaten to implementing the idea by Xinjiang in China’s far-flung northwest. Authorities in the semi-autonomous region, too often gripped by violence as its ethnic Muslim Uygur population fight to protect traditions and rights, are using an array of cutting-edge technologies to keep tabs on perceived troublemakers. Facial recognition software and biometric data collection have been married with scanning and surveillance systems to produce three-dimensional portraits of millions of residents; it does not take much imagination to see how DNA collected last year as part of a “free physicals for all” programme could be integral to the scheme.

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DNA is excessively personal; most often collected from a saliva or blood sample, it can point to genetic traits and foibles. Doctors are increasingly using it to improve health by heading off potential inherited risks or identifying shortcomings and intolerances. One of my personal trainer’s sons gave a sample to a British company last year as part of a fitness assessment and found from the analysis what he claims to be a host of useful information, including probability of injury and recovery speed, and the recommendation that a Mediterranean diet best suits him.

But perhaps he should have been more circumspect about allowing relative strangers to collect and store his DNA. He has no idea who has access to the data or how safe it is, raising questions about security, privacy and rights. In the hands of a government, it can be used to detect contact between one person and others. We’re also only too aware from detective stories how DNA can link people to crimes, sometimes as a result of fraud or mistakes. It can lead to divorce and in the hands of a health insurance company, have a negative impact on premiums and treatment.

The costs of genome sequencing are coming down, making peering into our DNA ever easier. I’m open to the idea of analysis by a doctor to determine whether I should be eating better, exercising more or taking particular vitamins. Knowing which genetic diseases I may be susceptible to would be useful, far more than the family history research I have done that was, in part, to find out about what forebears died of to guess at what I may one day be stricken by. But I’ve no intention of giving a government a sample for its database.

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Immigration checkpoints around the world are getting increasingly intrusive; on my last trip to Japan, I had to give a print of each and every one of my fingers in addition to having a picture taken. In contrast, Chinese authorities during a visit to the mainland only wanted scans of both of my thumbs, although I’ve heard that hand-held devices are being used to detect banned apps on smartphones. It’s all in the name of innovation and technology – something to keep in mind as governments say we need to move faster into the future.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post