One of the staples of almost every dystopian cyberpunk future imagined, is vast amounts of data being available online or in digital vaults, all at the hands of all-powerful governments or corporations (sometimes they’re one in the same). This vast amount of data often includes very personal information on the people for the sake of controlling them. Of course, it’s done under the guise of keeping them safe. But, as we all know, there is a fine and sometimes blurry line between keeping people safe and strangling them to keep control.
If you’ve read a fair number of my previous posts or know me online (or in person even), you know where my sociological leanings tend to go. Generally, I’m all about being part of a community and what is required of us for that. But I do completely understand when that can go too far. And recent articles in Science and in Oxford’s Journal of Law and the Biosciences (JLB) might be suggesting just that.
They’re argument basically states that maybe it’s time for a universal genetic database.
My initial reaction is very much a visceral and from the gut, “Oh, Hell no!” This reaction is borne out of the worlds of Minority Report and Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell and Judge Dread, and dozens of others. The idea of a universal genetic database even gives me flashes of a bleak Gattaca-like future where what you do is based on your DNA.
But this is an emotional reaction, based on fear; fear of surrendering control of the very essence of who and what I am to some computer system.
So let’s look at it from a logical point of view. The argument goes like this: Use of a variety of existing genetic databases is growing in law enforcement. In many cases, DNA is the end-all-be-all in proving someone’s guilt. Or innocence. According to the JLB, use of DNA in criminal investigations by April 2017 alone resulted in exonerating 350 people of crimes they did not commit. Of those, the DNA resulted in identifying and convicting 147 the correct bad guys. And since then, use of DNA in criminal investigations has only grown.
Yes, this looks good. Catching bad guys, the right bad guys, is a very good thing. And proponents of the database argue that having one unified database could do even more. It could even help reduce racial bias and profiling in law enforcement. Keep in mind, racial profiling in law enforcement is not a data issue, it’s a training and bias issue. Having the database will not remove the bias, it will just remove one avenue for it to be expressed. Technology is not the answer to hate or ignorance, education is.
On the surface, these things sound really great, and they are in concept, to be sure. But another factor to consider is how vulnerable this makes people. Your individual genetic codes is in no uncertain terms the vast majority of who and what you are. Yes… Currently in the U.S., it is illegal for health insurance companies to deny services to someone based on their genetics. It is also illegal for companies to patent a piece of existing human genetic code.
However, as we all know, money talks and bullshit walks. Going back to our dystopian cyberpunk future concept, there is a think line that often holds mega corporations back from even more dominance and control than they already have, and that line is our own government. But just like anything else, the government is made up of people, and people are ultimately corruptible. Just look at our current political climate.
I’m not trying to be a fear-monger on this. To be honest, the more I’ve researched the less nervous I am about the idea, but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with it. Computers are only ever getting more powerful, always gaining the ability to process more and more data. And IMHO, creating a single, unified database for everyone’s DNA profile creates one hell of a tasty target for a range of unethical behavior from data mining to discrimination.
We’ve seen how well modern computer security holds up when someone is determined to hack into a system. The seemingly weekly announcements of corporate data breaches testify to this. I honestly don’t think our data security abilities, at a national level, are up to the task.
It’s kind of like how my step father told me as a kid, “Locks keep honest people honest. If someone really wants to break into your house, they’re going to get in. Period.”