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Potential for ‘DNA paparazzi’ poses questions about biometric privacy, property rights

Categories Biometrics News  |  Surveillance
Potential for ‘DNA paparazzi’ poses questions about biometric privacy, property rights

Two U.S. law professors writing in The Conversation say the current laws and jurisprudence around privacy and property are insufficient to handle the potential for ‘DNA paparazzi’ to publicly disclose the genetic code of public figures, raising complicated questions about rights and biometric collection.

Liza Vertinsky, a professor of law at the University of Maryland, and Yaniv Heled, associate professor of law at Georgia State University, delve into the murky world of bioethics and law surrounding DNA. As a biometric, DNA is a highly precise modality that reveals the unique genetic blueprint inherent to all living things. It is used for scientific and medical research, law enforcement, ID cards, ancestry investigation, and immigration, among other applications.

Vertinsky and Heled imagine a world where DNA paparazzi — a term they coin – could snoop around the places where a celebrity was “with swabs and sterile tubes in hand” rather than cameras, to “seek out and analyze discarded genetic materials from the celebrities they pursue, publishing the results.”

Though it may sound like a paranoid fantasy, the law professors point to Madonna, who has hired a DNA clean-up crew for over a decade to pore over her dressing rooms. Recently, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz refused to take COVID-19 PCR tests when meeting President Vladimir Putin, with speculation they feared their DNA or health information could be used for nefarious designs. There are also reports that world leaders have their bodily wastes collected when overseas.

This potential for non-consensual DNA collection of public figures for salacious scoops in the sleezy press is one that Vertinsky and Heled worry about, as there are few laws in the U.S. protecting the interests of individuals regarding their intimate genetic material and information. While there have been court cases involving privacy rights or the value of genetic information for biomedical research, they say it only covers one dimension of genetic law. There is the privacy of family members with shared genetics, for example.

Genetic paparazzi moves the courts deeper into questions about U.S. privacy rights, the two write, with clashing protections between the First Amendment (right to free speech and press) and Fourth Amendment (restrictions on unreasonable searches and seizure); and public figures who are objects of legitimate public interest, but also have publicity rights to control the commercial value of their “unique personally identifying traits,” like DNA.

With the current U.S. Supreme Court unlikely to recognize new rights or affirm previously recognized rights not mentioned in the Constitution, Vertinsky and Heled acknowledge the federal courts are unlikely to protect genetic information and material. While they see a future where state legislatures and courts will have to take up the cases, they say, “none of the states have adequately grappled with the complexities of genetic legal claims.” Even states that have laws covering genetic privacy are said to be narrow, like prohibiting disclosure of genetic information, but not collection.

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