IAPP-GDPR Web Banners-300x250-FINAL
The Art of Turning Discarded Chewing Gum Into Your Portrait

Think of how much of ourselves we leave behind in public: A piece of chewing gum here. A strand of hair there. For smokers, perhaps a littered cigarette butt.

No big deal, right? Well, maybe the littering…

But what if someone could take your mundane, discarded items—filled with tiny strands of DNA—and turn them into a portrait of you?

Well, according to this NPR story, someone has already started this amazing genetic art form. Heather Dewey-Hagborg takes these forgotten “artifacts,” analyzes their genetic material, puts them into a self-designed software program, which in turn, builds 3-D face models. And here’s more:

“Dewey-Hagborg can determine ethnicity, gender, even a tendency to be overweight.

But even all of that can't give her the whole picture. Much of the information is still missing, and Dewey-Hagborg has to fill in the gaps. She compares that part of the work to a sketch artist. "This person is more likely to be overweight, to have pale skin, to have freckles, blue eyes, how do I interpret this?"

People often ask her how accurate the portraits are. Of course, she has no way of knowing. After all, she collects these items from anonymous sources.”

I’d be curious to see how accurate these portraits turn out. When she completed her own portrait, half of the observers saw an incredible likeness and the other half saw no likeness at all.

Though her project teems with creativity, the fact that so much of our most personal information can be recreated is, at the very least, creepy.

A few weeks ago, we reported on Harvard Prof. Latanya Sweeney’s research. Her team “scraped data on anonymous volunteers who shared their DNA with the Personal Genome Project” and re-identified more than 40 percent of the sample.

Or what about a paper recently published in Science that discusses a DNA process where donors and their relatives could be identified “even without any demographic or personal information”? With that possibility, how can any of us, whether a privacy pro or a common Joe, expect to protect any modicum of personal privacy?

The now famous case of Henrietta Lacks has caused a revolution in cell research. But as one writer for Forbes points out, “the privacy question (for Lacks’) descendants is very real.” He compares the genome to a diary and argues that such personal data should not become public, even after death.

So the privacy conundrum goes beyond the individual to relatives and beyond life into death.

Then there’s the Myriad Genetics database. Heard of it? The New York Times wrote an interesting piece on the gigantic database that contains information on DNA mutations that increase cancer risk. Researchers would love to make use of this information, and with good purpose. I think Angelina Jolie would agree.

How about individuals who get arrested but not convicted of a crime? The U.S. Supreme Court heard a case earlier this year on whether arrestees in Maryland must provide law enforcement with a DNA sampling, even if there’s no conviction. With the ability to see so much of an individual and their family from DNA, does this kind of collection seem right?

Additionally, databases filled with DNA sampling will surely pose as juicy targets for exploitation. According to an EPIC amicus brief, the CODIS database contains more than 11 million profiles. “As science reveals new ways in which DNA may be used, the potential for misuse by government entities presents a risk to individual privacy,” the brief argues.

But there is an upside, as Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s current work reveals. In addition to her artistic endeavors,

“she says, it's taken on another purpose. Right now she's working with the Delaware medical examiner's office to try to identify a woman in a 20-year-old unsolved case by using some of the victim's remains to build a 3-D portrait of her. She's six weeks away from finishing the process, when investigators will, for the first time, have some idea of what the victim looked like before her death.”

Clearly we’re in unchartered territory filled with promise and peril. Perhaps more lives will be saved by learning more about the chances an individual will get cancer. And perhaps years from now, business around protecting your DNA in public will be thriving.

Written By

Jedidiah Bracy, CIPP/E, CIPP/US


If you want to comment on this post, you need to login.


Board of Directors

See the esteemed group of leaders shaping the future of the IAPP.

Contact Us

Need someone to talk to? We’re here for you.

IAPP Staff

Looking for someone specific? Visit the staff directory.

Learn more about the IAPP»

Daily Dashboard

The day’s top stories from around the world

Privacy Perspectives

Where the real conversations in privacy happen

The Privacy Advisor

Original reporting and feature articles on the latest privacy developments

Privacy Tracker

Alerts and legal analysis of legislative trends

Privacy Tech

Exploring the technology of privacy

Canada Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top Canadian privacy news

Europe Data Protection Digest

A roundup of the top European data protection news

Asia-Pacific Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top privacy news from the Asia-Pacific region

IAPP Westin Research Center

Original works. Groundbreaking research. Emerging scholars.

Advertise in IAPP Publications

Find out how to get your message in front the people you want to reach. Download a media kit now.

Get more News »

Find a KnowledgeNet Chapter Near You

Network and talk privacy at IAPP KnowledgeNet meetings, taking place worldwide.

Women Leading Privacy

Events, volunteer opportunities and more designed to help you give and get career support and expand your network.

IAPP Job Board

Looking for a new challenge, or need to hire your next privacy pro? The IAPP Job Board is the answer.

Join the Privacy List

Have ideas? Need advice? Subscribe to the Privacy List. It’s crowdsourcing, with an exceptional crowd.

Find more ways to Connect »

Find a Privacy Training Class

Two-day privacy training classes are held around the world. See the complete schedule now.

Online Privacy Training

Build your knowledge. The privacy know-how you need is just a click away.

The Training Post—Can’t-Miss Training Updates

Subscribe now to get the latest alerts on training opportunities around the world.

New Web Conferences Added!

See our list of upcoming web conferences. Just log on, listen in and learn!

Train Your Staff

Get your team up to speed on privacy by bringing IAPP training to your organization.

Learn more »

CIPP Certification

The global standard for the go-to person for privacy laws, regulations and frameworks

CIPM Certification

The first and only privacy certification for professionals who manage day-to-day operations

CIPT Certification

The industry benchmark for IT professionals worldwide to validate their knowledge of privacy requirements

Certify Your Staff

Find out how you can bring the world’s only globally recognized privacy certification to a group in your organization.

Learn more about IAPP certification »

Get Close-up

Looking for tools and info on a hot topic? Our close-up pages organize it for you in one easy-to-find place.

Where's Your DPA?

Our interactive DPA locator helps you find data protection authorities and summary of law by country.

IAPP Westin Research Center

See the latest original research from the IAPP Westin fellows.

Looking for Certification Study Resources?

Find out what you need to prepare for your exams

More Resources »

GDPR Comprehensive: Registration Open

New! Intensive two-day GDPR training led by the sharpest minds in the field. It's a can't-miss event.

The Congress Is Cancelled

The IAPP Europe Data Protection Congress 2015 is cancelled. Click through to learn more.

Sponsor an Event

Increase visibility for your organization—check out sponsorship opportunities today.

Exhibit at an Event

Put your brand in front of the largest gatherings of privacy pros in the world. Learn more.

More Conferences »

Become a Member

Start taking advantage of the many IAPP member benefits today

Corporate Members

See our list of high-profile corporate members—and find out why you should become one, too

Renew Your Membership

Don’t miss out for a minute—continue accessing your benefits

Join the IAPP»