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Trump’s DNA Is Reportedly For Sale. Here’s What Someone Could Do With It.

Images: EARNE$T

If you had Donald Trump’s DNA, what would you do with it?

The idea isn’t as outlandish as it may seem: An anonymous organization called the Earnest Project is offering the chance to own DNA samples of a handful of world leaders and celebrities. The group claims it has surreptitiously collected items discarded by attendees of the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that may contain their DNA. President Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Elton John all attended the conference.

The group has compiled these artifacts — napkins, paper coffee cups, a glass parfait jar, cigarette butts, and other items — in an online catalog it calls the “Davos Collection.” Each has an estimated dollar value: A strand of human hair is listed at $1,200 to $3,000. A used breakfast fork has an estimated worth up to $36,500. And a wine glass is valued at up to $65,000. None of the items are identified with names, but it’s assumed they come from the leaders or celebrities at the forum.

The Earnest Project is planning to auction off the items to raise awareness about “surveillance capitalism,” the practice of monetizing people’s personal data. They fear that our genetic data could eventually end up in the hands of tech companies like Facebook and Google, which already harvest a lot of personal data.

“By collecting and selling vital and sensitive data harvested from the most powerful people on the planet, we hope to encourage a visceral reaction against surveillance capitalism among the elite,” the Earnest Project told OneZero in an email. “We’re all constantly depositing our DNA around us and on discarded items. Once you start paying attention, it’s really quite easy to collect a target’s DNA.”

Now that genetic testing is getting cheaper and companies are developing hand-held DNA sequencing devices, it’s no longer a far-off possibility that someone could take your DNA, get it analyzed, and use it against you for blackmail, extortion, or discrimination.

The Earnest Project had planned to hold the auction in New York on February 20 but is postponing the sale due to “unresolved legal issues,” according to a statement emailed to OneZero.

What the law says about DNA theft

You might be wondering, is it really legal to collect and sell someone’s discarded DNA? It turns out in most parts of the United States, it is.

“We do have a federal law that addresses genetic discrimination,” says Mason Marks, an assistant professor of law at Gonzaga University and an affiliated fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project. “But it only prevents a very narrow range of actors from using someone’s DNA against them.”

He’s referring to the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) of 2008, which prohibits prejudicial treatment of people because of their DNA in certain contexts. For example, health insurers can’t deny coverage to individuals and employers can’t fire someone based on a person’s genetic information. Those are important protections, but the law doesn’t prohibit groups like life insurers, mortgage lenders, or schools from getting ahold of a person’s DNA and using it to deny services.

Surprisingly, there are no federal laws that prohibit the practice of stealing someone’s DNA either. A handful of states — Alaska, Florida, New Jersey, New York, and Oregon — have laws on the books that make it a crime. But even these state laws vary in how comprehensive they are, Marks says. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has recognized DNA theft as a criminal offense since 2006, and the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation puts new privacy safeguards on genetic data.

In the United States, if you were to physically take a “biospecimen” from someone, like plucking a hair from their head, that would infringe on that person’s rights. “But if they discard it, that’s considered to be abandonment,” says Brad Malin, co-director of the Center for Genetic Privacy and Identity in Community Settings at Vanderbilt University. “Technically, you’re surrendering your rights at that point.”

The water bottle we toss in the trash or strand of hair that’s left behind in a public bathroom — it’s all abandoned property. And once you abandon that property, you no longer own it.

In terms of what recourse a victim of DNA theft would have in the United States, Marks says, “I think you would have relatively few options.”

A used napkin.

What someone could do with your DNA today

So, what exactly could you do with a DNA sample from President Trump? Or what could someone do with a sample of your DNA?

If you had someone’s DNA and paid to get it analyzed, you could learn all sorts of intimate details about a person — their health risks, biological relationships, and ancestry.

You could determine whether someone has genetic variants that increase their risk of certain diseases. For instance, some variants of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes have been linked to a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer. And a mutation in the APOE gene increases a person’s risk for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. These genetic alterations increase disease risk but don’t necessarily mean a person will develop them. But even this information could be damaging, if made public. A CEO whose genetic profile indicated an increased risk of Alzheimer’s could send company stocks tumbling, or a political candidate’s predisposition to heart disease might discourage voters.

DNA could also reveal uncomfortable details about biological relationships, like whether someone is adopted or has a biological child they weren’t aware of. “I think the number one concern people are worried about is learning familial relationships that they didn’t know about, or they’re worried about familial relationships getting disclosed that they didn’t want disclosed,” Malin says.

A DNA sample from, say, a world leader could reveal whether they had any children out of wedlock — information that, if publicized, could be damaging to their career.

With DNA, you could also attempt to connect crimes to their perpetrators. Recently, New York columnist E. Jean Carroll, who accused President Trump of raping her in the 1990s, said she is seeking a DNA sample from him to determine whether it matches the DNA material from the dress she wore during the alleged assault. If the DNA is a match, Carroll’s case might hold more weight in a court of law. In a notable 2018 case, DNA from a discarded water bottle and chewed gum led to the arrest of the man who murdered a Pennsylvania teacher in 1992.

“The question is whether the powerful will protect only themselves or all of us.”

DNA also infers your ancestry — a major reason why people have bought at-home DNA tests from companies like 23andMe — which could also be used against you.

Democratic presidential candidate and senator Elizabeth Warren long identified as part Cherokee. In 2018, she controversially released results of a DNA test showing that she had mostly European ancestry but a small number of genetic variants associated with people of Native American ancestry. Critics said it was proof that her ethnicity didn’t match her previous claims. The fallout could have been worse had a political opponent covertly collected a DNA sample from Warren and released the results.

What someone could do with your DNA in the future

It’s hard to know how our genetic information might be used in the future, but we can think of a few possible risks.

Some fear that DNA collection could lead to the surveillance of certain populations. In January, the U.S. government began a program to collect DNA from anyone detained by immigration custody, including U.S. citizens. The Trump administration said the effort will help fight crime, but critics say it raises privacy risks for detainees and their families.

In the near future, you might have to submit DNA testing results to take out a life insurance or long-term care insurance policy — both of which are not covered by GINA. Based on your results, you could be denied a policy or subject to higher rates.

Access to education could be affected too: A student named Colman Chadam was forced to leave sixth grade in 2012 when teachers and parents learned that he had a copy of a gene associated with cystic fibrosis. Even though he had been healthy all his life, other parents complained that he posed a health risk to two siblings at the school with active cystic fibrosis. People with the disease can spread germs to each other, leading to lung infections. With some scientists interested in developing genetic tests to predict traits like intelligence, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which elite schools insist on applicants forfeiting their DNA to determine whether they are smart enough to be admitted.

And what if Big Tech had your DNA? Genetic data, combined with other types of personal data, like browsing history, family photos, and travel history, could provide companies like Facebook and Google with a far more intimate look into your private life than they already have, allowing them to precisely target the ads they show you. As these companies move into health care, it’s possible that soon they will have access to your genetic code.

The Earnest Project hopes its catalog will catch the attention of politicians and other influential people and spark new privacy protections around how your genetic data and other personal information is collected and used. “When people who have power feel threatened, they will change the law to protect themselves,” Malin says. “They may end up protecting people as an artifact, but it’s usually about protecting themselves first.”

Of course, it’s almost impossible to know whether the items were actually collected from world leaders at Davos — they could have been collected from anyone anywhere. (The group insists that the collection is legitimate, but OneZero was not able to independently verify this.) Even if it is just a publicity stunt or performance art, the idea of a DNA catalog raises legitimate concerns about the future of genetic privacy and data harvesting.

“The question is,” the group said via email, “whether the powerful will protect only themselves or all of us.”



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Emily Mullin

Former staff writer at Medium, where I covered biotech, genetics, and Covid-19 for OneZero, Future Human, Elemental, and the Coronavirus Blog.