Forensic genomics: kin privacy, driftnets and other open questions

Stajano, Frank, Bianchi, Lucia, Liò, Pietro and Korff, Douwe (2008) Forensic genomics: kin privacy, driftnets and other open questions. In: 7th ACM workshop on Privacy in the electronic society (CCS08: 15th ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security 2008), 27 October 2008, Alexandria, Virginia (USA).


DNA analysis is increasingly used in forensics, where it is being pushed as the holy grail of identification. But we are approaching a dramatic "phase change" as we move from genetics to genomics: when sequencing the entire genome of a person becomes sufficiently cheap as to become a routine operation, as is likely to happen in the coming decades, then each DNA examination will expose a wealth of very sensitive personal information about the examined individual, as well as her relatives. In this interdisciplinary discussion paper we highlight the complexity of DNA-related privacy issues as we move into the genomic (as opposed to genetic) era: the "driftnet" approach of comparing scene-of-crime samples against the DNA of the whole population rather than just against that of chosen suspects; the potential for errors in forensic DNA analysis and the consequences on security and privacy; the civil liberties implications of the interaction between medical and forensic applications of genomics. For example, your kin can provide valuable information in a database matching procedure against you even if you don't; and being able to read the whole of a sampled genome, rather than just 13 specific markers from it, provides information about the medical and physical characteristics of the individual.

Our aim is to offer a simple but thought-provoking and technically accurate summary of the many issues involved, hoping to stimulate an informed public debate on the statutes by which DNA collection, storage and processing should be regulated.

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