Image from Wikimedia Commons


Issues of privacy, surveillance, security, and transparency have been front and center in international news for some time now. In the United States, many believe that the privacy of citizens was essentially relinquished when the Patriot Act was instated in 2001 as an anti-terrorism program. Perhaps, it wasn’t until the Snowden leaks, twelve years later, that a greater number citizens and the rest of the world really understood the effects of this act and its infringements on civil rights.

The revealing of the National Security Agency’s tight relationship with phone companies and its massive phone data collection program left the nation in a state of shock and betrayal. We also learned how important and revealing our metadata was. With phone records showing when, where, and with whom we were in communication, the NSA could derive the why… the story of what we were saying and doing. And even though the stories our metadata tell aren’t necessarily true, they can still follow us around. Jacob Appelbaum explains this idea well in this great clip from Occupy Wall Street days in 2012 (and later included in the CitizenFour film). In the clip, he also explains the idea of likability— the dangers of linking separate pieces of data that reveal bits of information about you (like your metro card and debit card). Once these pieces of data are linked, your steps, your actions, your life, your story (whether true or not) can become legible to those with access to this data. 


Let’s bring this idea into the even scarier context of bioprivacy and surveillance. What happens when this metadata is no longer just your phone gps, or your bank trail, but your actual biology? The most direct link back to YOU.


Heather Dewey Hagborg asks these question through a series of projects addressing the protection of one’s own genetic information. In DNA Spoofing she provides us with DIY ways of maintaining our anonymity in an age of genetic surveillance by trading hair, eyelashes and fingernail clippings with others.


In Invisible she and her collaborators give us a product along with open source instructions for eliminating the trail of our own genetic material that we leave behind. Invisible is a spray that comes in two varieties: Erase and Replace. Erase destroys your DNA traces left behind by, say, your saliva on a wine glass, while Replace contains an anonymous store-bought DNA that you can then apply to your recently erased wine glass. 


In a related, yet completely different application, a company called SelectaDNA is cashing in on a line of synthetic DNA products. From greases, to sprays, to gels, administered by aerosol cans, rifles, and more, SelectaDNA provides a suite of anti-theft techniques using unique, coded DNA that can mark and later be used to identify criminals. For example, should a shoplifter be seen fleeing a retail store, an employee can trigger the DNA spray can above the door and coat the thief with the store’s unique DNA solution, which will not wash off for weeks.


As we can see, DNA technology allows some people to go unnoticed while sending some to jail. I wait, with popcorn in hand, to see SelectaDNA and Invisible battle it out a futuristic, dystopia where humans have DNA sequencers embedded in their tattooed-on apple watches and google contact lenses, a war of anonymity versus identification— I suppose this isn’t really a stretch of the imagination.


Regardless, today, “erase” and “replace” are important, base concepts for maintaining the security of your personal information in a world of privacy infringement:

You can either destroy traces of information or clutter them with additional information, making them illegible— or both.

In the project ScareMail by Ben Grosser, users can install a web browser extension that adds “scary” text in the signature of their outgoing emails. The “scary” text is generated by an algorithm that creates a unique, non-sensical story. The story contains NSA search terms (a broad range of keywords used to identify communication by potential terrorists). Grosser writes, “The ability to use whatever words we want is one of our most basic freedoms, yet the NSA’s growing surveillance of electronic speech threatens our first amendment rights.” The idea of ScareMail is to minimize the effectiveness of these NSA search programs by adding noise and cluttering the space.


“Cluttering” (as I’ll continue to call it- until someone corrects me) is actually a very empowering technique. It’s about participation and activism, it provides protection without eliminating the individual’s voice. It’s about intervening in a system by creating and maintaining a community that becomes more powerful than those who the system privileges— An alternative to simply hiding from those in power.

There are many people and groups doing good work in the realms of digital privacy, and the conversation around protecting our own genetic privacy is beginning to take hold, but as we learn more about the bacteria in and on our bodies, we see a new, emerging world of privacy issues. Your microbiome is simultaneously unique to you (like your genome) but also changes based on who/what you engage with. Unlike your genes, which you are born with and stick around for your whole life (more or less), its possible (at least in theory) for your bacteria to change, telling a real-time story about you. The nuances of this are unclear, and we don’t know yet how much can be discovered about you based on your bacteria, but it’s safe to assume somethings could be detected.


In addition, the bacteria on your skin leave a bread trail that is much larger than that of your own genes, which makes it easier for others to obtain these traces.

In the paper “Forensic identification using skin bacterial communities” the authors explain that we generally shed more bacteria cells than our own cells, “unless there is blood, tissue, semen, or saliva on an object, it is often difficult to obtain sufficient human DNA for forensic identification.

The study also explains that that our bacteria is fairly unique to us, “our microbes our highly personalized to initiate the development of a unique forensic approach” and that “only 13% of the bacterial phylotypes on the palm surface are shared between any two individuals.”

They also note that identical twins will share the same DNA, but will “harbor substantially different microbial communities, suggesting that the collective genomes of our microbial symbionts may be more personally identifying than our own human genomes.”


In a more recent paper, “Identifying personal microbiomes using metagenomic codes” it was “demonstrated that individuals could be uniquely identified among populations of 100s based on their microbiomes alone.”

In this study, researchers were able to sequence the DNA of an individual’s microbes and correctly identify the individual without looking at any of that individual’s own DNA. The microbiome of these individuals stayed fairly stable over the course of a year— a kind of microbial “fingerprint.” Researchers were able to identify more than 80% of their test subjects with bacteria samples solely taken from their guts. One of the main take-aways from this study was that the design of microbiome research and data collection should take into account possible privacy issues.


So from the individual’s prospective, as we move around this world leaving bacteria from our skin and our guts on surfaces and in toilets everywhere, we should be thoughtful about the stories these traces could tell. There are still lots of unknowns, which means now is the time to prototype systems, futures, products and processes for choosing your biological “privacy settings.” Perhaps an individual can do it alone, but perhaps we’ll need to work together to clutter things up a bit.