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Genetic Privacy and Government Data Bases

Michael Connelly is one of my favorite authors, and he’s just come out with a new novel, Fair Warning. It is, like so many Connelly books, about serial killers. In this one, the killer appears (I haven’t finished the book yet) to be using a company selling genetic family tracing information to locate victims. Unlike any other Connelly book of which I’m aware, Connolly uses a real person as a character, and a real business of which he is actually a part (FairWarning.com). He also makes this point (and verifies that it is current law): the marketing of genetic information is not regulated by the government.

I see those messages as activism,  by Connelly, although the message that a business or type of business is unregulated by the government is far enough from my main concern on this issue that I haven’t looked to see if Connelly has actually identified what he was doing as activism. In my opinion, the government itself poses the far greater danger, and of course government always exempts itself from regulation.

Here are the facts. In the book, the company in question was selling genetic sample packs. You fill them out, give them to the company, they do a genome analysis and tell you, among other things, whether you have unknown family members. The company makes very little money off of its customers, and it gets rich by selling their anonymized information to companies all over the world. (All of this happens in real life. There’s even a cliche about it: if you don’t know how a company makes its money, YOU are the product.)

In addition, there are many other sources of “bio-information” about people. Apple (at least) lets you use your fingerprint as the security password controlling whether or not a phone opens. And everywhere you go there are video cameras videoing you and everybody. Even as you read this article, police are using those camera images to track down suspects related to the protests happening everywhere. Facebook keeps everything you give them, and as much as they can appropriate with their snooping software, as well. Companies track the location of your mobile phone 24/7 and store the information forever, and this, I suppose, will be the basis for the “contact-tracing” apps we keep hearing about. I keep hearing that Microsoft or other companies are working on microchips that could be embedded in our bodies that would store and transmit various biological information.

There is a vast amount of information out there linking your genetics, lifestyle, and looks, your computer habits and identities, and every other conceivable fact about you. It is all accessible to government, and computers now have the capacity to assimilate it and use it in many ways.

Of course there’s a fox (or many foxes) for every hen house, and that’s what Michael Connelly likes to write about (which he does, superbly). I am concerned with the bigger question: is freedom possible when we all live in such a hen house? I fear that it already isn’t possible, but that if it still is, it won’t be for long. I believe protecting, restricting and reducing such information is everyone’s responsibility – everyone who believes in freedom, anyway.

To link this to debt collection, which is my normal task, is simple. The existence of all this information makes it easier for debt collectors to find you and your money. Makes it easier for them to sue you, and whatever makes it easier to sue you makes it more likely that they will. And it makes it more likely that your information will be stolen and fraudulent accounts will be created in your name. The more information the scammer has, the harder it will be for you to clear your record.