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Interesting Things I Come Across
Edition 037
Read time: 3 min 
How Neanderthal are you?
Or, more importantly: does it really matter?
Last year, Californian police solved a 30-year-old cold case by identifying a serial killer through the genetic similarities of his estranged relatives, at least one of whom submitted their DNA to an online genealogy database. Today, sixty percent of white Americans can be identified through such databases (news article here; journal article here). And once a database holds the DNA of just two percent of a given population, it is possible to identify the entire population through familial relationships.  

Many customers of genealogical services like Ancestry.com and 23andMe are not aware their genetic information can be used by law enforcement in certain circumstances, or monetised in other ways, such as being sold to pharmaceutical companies for drug research. It's a clever business model, really: a two-sided marketplace where on one side, people pay a fee and mail in a spit sample to find out what percent Neanderthal their DNA is, while on the other side, multinational corporations buy data to boost their research and development efforts. 

Right now, the range of data buyers is relatively limited, as there are few ways to monetise genomic data. But it's not hard to imagine a world in which, say, insurance companies buy datasets specifically to price-hike premiums for those customers whose genes predict higher likelihoods of rare and expensive diseases. And per the existing terms of use for many geneaological services, customers have no control over how and where their data is used or sold. 

Same, same but different
A recurring theme of Interesting Things is the similarities between centrally-planned and market-led political regimes. As the Golden State Killer case shows, DNA databases are pretty useful for solving crimes. China thinks so too, and aims to collect 100 million DNA records by 2020. Remember the 23andMe customers voluntarily sending spit samples? Here's the WSJ reporting from China, where the DNA of whole villages is being collected under the guise of free health screening:

"Schoolchildren in a bucolic region in western China famed for steam trains and jasmine flowers thought little of it when police interrupted classes and asked all the boys to spit into small plastic boxes." 

Seems rather grim. But in the West, state security forces have pretty wide access to most genomic data held by private companies, either through covert surveillance or judicial warrants. The presence of judiciaries appears to be the main difference compared with China. I don't know a lot about the process by which a judicial warrant is granted, but I suspect they are relatively easy for police and prosecutors to obtain, and not generally subject to much oversight from authorities or the press. Which begs the question, if the state can access most people's genomic data at will, how different are these regimes?

Predictive fiction
In 1984, George Orwell imagined a grim world under the thumb of a muscular, totalitarian state. In contrast, Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, prophesised a different approach where we voluntarily enter a surveillance state because the products and services we use are so compelling. I'll finish with this quote from Neil Postman

"Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think."
About Interesting Things I Come Across 
Interesting Things I Come Across is a weekly, self-explanatory newsletter. My goal is to share thoughtful ideas with clever people in no more than 500 words. Replies are encouraged and corrections are welcomed. I don't necessarily endorse the Things I write about, unless explicitly stated.

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