The "Gattaca" App for Your Smartphone

Biopolitical Times
An iPad is tilted, and displays Facebook screenshot of Genetic Compatibility Test page.

According to a recent article in the Malaysian New Straits Times, the country’s participation as a "node" in the global Human Variome Project "is expected to revolutionise the healthcare industry in Malaysia, save lives and reduce the cost of the healthcare budget."

Not only that, but HVP founder Robert Cotton has an idea for a new gizmo that the New Straits Times seems to be taking seriously – and that thus surely warrants some thought.

Basically, the idea seems to be to give gene tests to as many Malaysians as possible; convince them to make their DNA data public; and then provide a cell phone app to accessibly store all of an individual's DNA sequences. Then, "when [two people] want to get married and have children, they place their telephones together, and a voice will come out saying you both have a very serious defect and we suggest you see a genetic counsellor."   

But does this approach really take full advantage of future technological possibilities? Why stop here?

For example, why wait until folks are engaged to activate cell phone connections? Why not put up a link to an online matchmaking service and let the computers pre-select people first? This would work for straights as well as lesbians and gays seeking partners.

And the app could connect to a GPS system so you can find people nearby with compatible DNA patterns.  Then, once you’ve met and married and had children, the system could let schools link in to determine how to place your kids and identify preemptively those they want to medicate to ensure they are "good" students.

Of course, all this DNA information will likely also be encrypted into electronic medical records, driver's licenses, and passports. The underlying rationale would be the same for all the applications – to provide sure ways to identify individuals. Combine those databases with facial-recognition software and CCTV cameras (or just Google glasses), and anonymity becomes a completely outmoded concept.

The medical applications are just the start. What else could someone do with the certain knowledge that a particular individual, identified by his or her DNA, was in a specific place at a certain time? Break into their house (the burglar of course being disguised with pre-hacked, customized data)? Cheat with their spouse? Or even target them for selective assassination?

The combinations are endless. And I do wish they were only dystopian imaginings. But the grandiose plans for Malaysia do suggest that at least some of this may be what tomorrow brings. "We are hoping to extend our help to countries around the region like Thailand, Vietnam and Brunei. Malaysia may not be as advanced as Australia, for instance, but we are moving."

Let's hope these apps don't move beyond the factory doors.

Abby Lippman has spent decades following developments in applied genetic and reproductive technologies. Her main interests as a feminist researcher, writer and activist center on women's health and the politics of health. She is also Professor Emerita in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health at McGill University.

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