A new kind of sanitizer spray kills more than just bacteria. Artist and technologist Heather Dewey-Hagborg's "Invisible" line aims to wipe all traces of personhood from drooled-on forks, subway poles, and all other objects that hide traces of our DNA long after we're gone.
A product that preemptively erases DNA in order to avoid people spying on your genome might sound paranoid. But Dewey-Hagborg knows just how easy it is to snoop on DNA from experience. In 2012, fascinated by a single stray hair found in a cracked painting, she began collecting cigarette butts, chewed-up gum, and hair samples from public places, analyzing the genetic sequences contained within, and creating 3-D masks generated from the forensic details. The "Stranger Visions" project, she says, drove her deep into the all-too-real debates over genetic surveillance. Now, she's working on a dissertation on genetic privacy, and gearing up for a sale of the sprays this June.
"Erase," the first spray, is a lab-grade sanitizer used to wipe 99.5% genetic material from test tubes and petri dishes. "Replace," the follow up, is a scramble of different genetic materials to confuse the remaining 0.5%. Anyone could soon use both for $99.
"I think the average person should be thinking about this for the same reason that the average person is thinking about electronic surveillance," Dewey-Hagborg says. Like digital discrimination based on a person's clicks and habits, "I think one of the big issues we have to tackle going forward is genetic discrimination," she adds.
For privacy and civil rights experts, concern has been brewing about how genetic data is collected and used without consent.
Take, for example, the possibility of discrimination in the criminal justice system. A handful of states have begun using a technique called partial DNA matching, or familial searching, to generate leads on suspects from DNA collected at a crime scene. These clues bring up DNA from criminal justice databases that matches the suspect's, but those matches could also include his or relatives, whether those relatives are convicts, or in some states, misdemeanor arrestees. Partial DNA matching could help solve cases, but it could also create a disproportionate number of innocent suspects in minority communities, who are already overrepresented in jails, prisons, and the DNA database.
There are federal and state laws in the U.S. that prevent genetic discrimination in health insurance or employment, but loopholes do exist. Dewey-Hagborg also points to evidence of freaky genetic policies abroad. Uzbekistan, for instance, will begin testing kids' DNA as early as 2015 to identify potential Olympic athletes.
To some, this all represents the slippery slope that carries society into eugenic fascism. But before we get there, couldn't "Erase" and "Replace" also obstruct a crime scene investigation, and thus, obstruct justice? Who else would use such a thing other than hardened hit men?
"This kind of information has been available to the criminally inclined for years," Dewey-Hagborg says. Celebrities and politicians, on the other hand, might not have heard of ways to cover their genetic tracks—a potentially lucrative market.
Until June, Dewey-Hagborg is still figuring out the best way to launch the commerce/commentary project. But even if she doesn't end up selling too many, she still sees value in the discussion the project generates.
"We need to have dialogue about what protects the weakest among us, and not be wrapped up in these narcissistic concerns over whether we have anything to hide," she says.
[Images: Thomas Dexter]