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US Diplomats Collecting DNA – What's Going On?

From Dov Greenbaum:

Leaked US State Department Cable: 09STATE3756

REPORTING AND COLLECTION NEEDS: AFRICAN GREAT LAKES (DROC, BURUNDI, RWANDA)

Biographic and biometric data, including health, opinions toward the US, training history, ethnicity (tribal and/or

clan), and language skills of key and emerging political, military, intelligence, opposition, ethnic, religious, and

business leaders.  Data should include … DNA …

http://www.wikileaks.ch/cable/2009/04/09STATE37561.html

Although now since overshadowed by Anonymous, LulzSec and others, Wikileaks remains a news-making institution. A recurring theme in many of the documents leaked earlier this year are the requests, such as the one excerpted above, from the US State Department to its far flung diplomatic corps, to collect personal information on key civilian, political and military officials. The research and development of individual dossiers loaded with personal and relevant information seems reasonable; the concurrent collection and cataloguing of their genomic DNA, also discussed in the cables, not so much.

Government collection of DNA, however, is not new. The FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS, http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/lab/codis) is a repository for convicted, and in some states, suspected felons. The CODIS database, while the largest in the world in terms of individuals, maintains however, only a set of 13 short non-coding gene sequences per felon that are unlikely to provide any substantive personal information, beyond being able to identify matching individuals.

In contrast, the State Department’s efforts, like the recently released Department of Defense analysis regarding the proposed collection of whole genomes of the entire US Armed Forces, (See, e.g., the JASON report: “The $100 Genome: Implications for the DoD,” available at http://www.fas.org/irp/agency/dod/jason/hundred.pdf), the diplomatic DNA collection effort (The Diplome, if you will) raises troubling concerns.

1) Entirely apart from the fact that collection a person’s DNA without his consent may be illegal in some jurisdictions, it isn’t clear what the United States intends to do with this information. (The creation of America-friendly doppelgangers is still the stuff of science fiction.)

2) The cataloguing of someone else’s DNA samples might violate moral if not legal concepts of privacy:  Disclosing, or exploiting secrets discovered via sequencing DNA is arguably distinct from exposing a politician’s coke habit or gambling addiction (schadenfreude is especially enjoyable when it’s at the expense of a powerful politician). Why?  In contrast to other instances where personal information is released, the target’s connection between their DNA is immutable, they cannot simply apply for new bank accounts or change their address;  successfully exploiting your enemies’ genetic frailties is forever.

3) The likely lack of informed consent by the targets of this DNA collection effort, particularly given the amount of medical information embedded in the genome, is troubling. Imagine finding out for the first time that you will get Huntington’s disease from a leaked diplomatic cable.

4) And, as it remains impossible to anonymize whole genome data, i.e., even small snippets of DNA can be traced back to a particular individual, much of the data collected on these foreign leaders –and more importantly, by default, their uninvolved close relatives who share much of the same genes will, when leaked by Wikileaks or their progeny, be traceable back, exposing undiagnosed diseases, genetic traits, and even questioning biological ties to family members.

5) Finally, it may not even been that useful an effort: It’s been a decade since the announcement of the first complete draft of the human genome, yet the scientific community has yet to establish standards to effectively catalogue and analyze genomic data.  Further, given the paucity of phenotypic data – the physical manifestation of the genome, we don’t have enough information to create anything approaching a usable set of diplomatically relevant phenotype-genotype correlations. For example, current genetic correlations with alcoholism or other exploitable vices are still in development. (Spanagel R. et al,  An integrated genome research network for studying the genetics of alcohol addiction. Addict Biol. 15(4):369-79. (2010).)

As such, the questionable methods of collection of DNA, the current inability to exploit the information, and the likelihood that a new, replacement set of actors will likely arise by the time we can interpret much of the collected genomic data questions the scientific and even the foreign policy usefulness of this endeavor.

(posted by Hank Greely, but written by)

Dov Greenbaum

Non-resident fellow, Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences

Scholar in Residence, Center for Health Law, Bioethics and Health Policy Kiryat Ono College, Israel

Laboratory Associate, Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, Yale University

Patent Attorney, Sanford T. Colb Intellectual Property Law, Israel

The opinions expressed in this post are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent the views of his firm, its employees or its clients.

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