Thursday, April 02, 2009

Genome/DNA Hacking: Don't Let It Happen To You


You Just Might Want To Nonchalantly Wipe The Lip Print Off Your Glass Before You Leave The Club/Bar/Restaurant...

Because, It's Not Just A Stubborn Lipstick Stain Anymore...

It's Your Unique Skin Cells... Your Unique Saliva...

It's Your Unique DNA...

In Other Words: It's You.

And, It's Easier To Hijack and Get Analyzed (Without Your Knowledge/Consent) Than You Might Think...


Special Investigation: How My Genome Was Hacked

25 March 2009 by Peter Aldhous and Michael Reilly

INTIMATE secrets hidden in your DNA could be stolen without you even realising. By taking a glass from which you have drunk, a "genome hacker" could obtain a comprehensive scan of your genome, revealing DNA variants that help determine your susceptibility to a wide range of diseases, from a common form of blindness to Alzheimer's disease.

That's the disturbing finding of a New Scientist investigation, in which one of us - Michael Reilly - "hacked" the genome of the other - Peter Aldhous - armed with only a credit card, a private email account and a home address.

You might have thought that genome hacking requires specialist skills, and personal access to sophisticated equipment. But in recent years, some companies have started to offer personal genome scans to the public over the internet. Other firms routinely analyse genomes on behalf of scientists involved in human genetics research. In theory, both types of service are vulnerable to abuse by a genome hacker determined to submit someone else's DNA for covert analysis.

Until our investigation, it was not clear whether this would be possible in practice. Could a hacker with no access to a genetics lab take an item carrying another person's DNA and obtain a sample that companies would accept for scanning? Would the sample be of high enough quality to yield accurate results? And would genome analysis companies have procedures in place to identify and refuse suspicious orders?

We decided to find out. Rather like computer security researchers who expose vulnerabilities in software code so that they can be "patched" to guard against malicious hackers, our goal was to uncover vulnerabilities in the way companies offering genome scans operate, so that they can be fixed.

Our investigation uncovered some loopholes that might be closed to help thwart genome thieves. The findings also strengthen the case for additional laws to protect the information contained in the DNA that we all shed continually and leave lying around.

"Just as we have a right to expect that relatives, neighbours, or even strangers can't poke through our medical records without our permission, we should have a right to expect that people can't snoop through our genes," says Kathy Hudson, who heads the Genetics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC.

Our experimental genome hack began like this: Peter drank water from a glass, which he handed to Michael. Michael's first task was to get Peter's DNA off the glass and turn it into a sample that he could submit to a genome-scanning company.

Michael approached several firms that ordinarily extract DNA from items like drinking glasses and match this DNA against particular individuals, on behalf of the police, private detectives or citizens pursuing their own investigations. He said nothing about his intentions, but soon found a company that would extract the DNA without performing any DNA matches. Some weeks later a vial containing a solution of Peter's DNA turned up at Michael's home.

To Continue reading this fascinating story, click Here.

For those interested in the final analysis without reading the entire article - although I recommend reading it - here it is:

"Thwarting genome hackers may also require new laws to protect privacy. One approach would be for other countries to follow the UK, which has made it a crime to have someone else's DNA with the intent of analysing it without consent. "Although we are not aware of any instances of this in personal genome analysis, there is a clear rationale for making it illegal to analyse an individual's DNA without their knowledge and consent," says Decode spokesman Edward Farmer. Such laws are difficult to enforce, however, as an earlier New Scientist investigation revealed (31 January, p 6).

Another approach, which could be tried in parallel, would be to make it illegal for companies to extract and analyse DNA left on everyday items, except under specific circumstances. "There's no good reason, unless you are a police officer investigating a crime, to be doing DNA analysis on a sample from a drinking glass," argues Mark Rothstein, director of the Institute for Bioethics, Health Policy and Law at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

One thing is clear: if lawmakers fail to rise to the challenge posed by genome hacking, we all have reason to fear for the security of our DNA."

and Privacy.

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