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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

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