August 14, 2003

DNA Plagiarism

FuturePundit Randall Parker on some disturbing potential consequences of a new technique for extracting DNA from fingerprints:

See my previous posts Will The Death Of Genetic Privacy Hasten The End Of Freedom? and Genetic privacy: can it be protected? for more on the implications of advances of this kind. What already seems naive about my previous posts is that I speculated on how women would try to get saliva samples or other cell samples from close contact with guys in order to get DNA samples. Well, getting a DNA sample will be easier than that. It will be easy to get a DNA sample from any person seen holding a drink in a bar. When they get up to leave someone could walk by and grab one of their drinking glasses to take a quick sample off of it. The person trying to get the sample never even has to meet their quarry. Combine the ease of sample acquisition and cheap DNA sequencing and personal genetic privacy will become impossible to maintain.

This ability to sequence another's DNA is going to have interesting ramifications for paternity suits. A woman will be able to stalk a guy by going to the same bar or restaurant, grab a glass he held, get a sample, and then sequence the guy's DNA. The woman can then judge the suitability of the guy's DNA. If he passes muster in terms of what she wants in a child she will also be able to use the DNA sample to have it be manipulated in a microfluidic device to make a viable set of chromosomes to use in artificial fertilization. Then she'll be able to sue for paternity. Will courts hold men responsible for offspring when the men start claiming they never even met the women who sue them for paternity?

Read the whole thing. It's fascinating.

The introduction of the capability described above will probably mark the end of the paternity suit as we know it. But perhaps a new kind will emerge. What happens when a determined and stalkerish George Clooney fan collects one of the star's fingerprints from a freshly autographed photo and decides she wants to have "his" baby?

One day the kid, having been told all his life who his "father" is, seeks Clooney out and confronts him. This raises two questions:

  1. What kind of claim could the kid possibly have on the star? Granted, the mother could assert that the child was conceived naturally. But if she doesn't do that, or if Clooney's snoops find the records of the elaborate procedure she went through in order to conceive, or if (as I believe) the possibility that such a procedure could be used eventually creates a legal presumption that it has been used, what then? Does the mere sharing of DNA create a legally binding relationship? Would a celebrity — or anyone else — feel any sort of obligation to a child forced on them in this manner?

  2. What kind of claim would Clooney have against the mother? Perhaps his DNA is his intellectual property. He might decide to sue for copyright violation and demand that the woman pay royalties.If the Intellectual Property approach is what the legal establishment settles on for this kind of DNA theft, it raises another interesting possibility. Would DNA ever become public domain?

That's something for Lawrence Lessig and his buddies to mull over.

Posted by Phil at August 14, 2003 08:20 AM | TrackBack

Sorry, I'm not going to get my panties in a twist over this issue. I suspect that by the time uour scare scenarios are technically possible that our society will have changed enough to handle it and will most certainly come up with solutions that are different from what we can envision now (which would be, predicibly, banning all work in this area).

Posted by: rabidfox at August 14, 2003 10:07 AM

One thing is that for the near future, it'll be very hard to hide a artificial baby created in this way. Personally, I look forward to paternity testing. It'll cut through a lot of the deceptive sex games garbage.

Posted by: Karl Hallowell at August 14, 2003 04:22 PM

US Property law already recognizes biological property. The cases covering skin, blood and bone marrow being most on point (they're replenishable, unlike kidneys), the law allows for (1) trasnfer for general or specific use; (2) retention for personal use; and (3) sale. There are also penalties already established for non-lawful use.

So, it will grow from there.

Posted by: Brock at May 15, 2004 05:47 PM