Today’s youth are aware they need to be hypervigilant with their privacy. The Snowden affair brought that home and the recent Heartbleed bug (where passwords for services like banking and email were compromised) showed just how unsafe and exposed we are to the outside world. If you then take into account social media; where you have a digital footprint of your activities online, the notion of having any private life at all becomes very remote.
For artist and scientist Heather Dewey-Hagborg, digital privacy translates into your physical privacy as well. She has just launched “BioGen Futures” and the company's first product is the “Invisible spray,” designed to destroy and encode any stray DNA you leave floating around. This is to hide its trail from those who might misuse it.
If that sounds a little creepy, Dewey-Hagborg has firsthand experience of this, as she was the collector and creator of the Stranger Visions art exhibit. In this art piece Dewey-Hagborg extracted DNA samples from detritus she found on the public streets of New York City; from cigarette butts to chewing gum. She used the DNA samples to create lifelike 3D models of people’s heads, using elements coded from their DNA. This included skin type, eye color and gender.
And this was a completely legal process.
“It is not likely be legislated for twenty years,” said Philippa Loengard, Assistant Director of the Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts when I interviewed her last year. “This area is so avant-garde. However, if a drivers license was in the public garbage no one has a right to open credit cards with it, and this analogy could be used for collecting DNA from cigarettes in the trash.”
Now Dewey-Hagborg is using her understanding of the way privacy can be legally violated to help others. Her first product for sale is called “Invisible” and consists of two sprays. One is called “Replace” and one is “Erase.” Erase works like a disinfectant spray, clearing traces of your being from the area. Replace is described as an “obfuscation spray” cloaking your DNA with a mix of other genetic material.
Dewey-Hagborg said to us via email, “It should be a choice how you share your information and with whom, be it about your genes, your email or your phone calls.”
Where could this new area of biological privacy be going?
For Dewey-Hagborg, more privacy invasion is seen as the norm. “I am considering this product a first step, the first experiment in what I foresee being a whole new class of product. In five years time I think we will see genetic privacy products as a basic and commonplace thing to think about; like locking your door or using a password on your computer.”
At $99 for her kit (available in June), that could work out to be a good bargain.. for her. But could this actually work?
Well, yes and no. Using Erase would cover up stray DNA - but so would using detergent. The body sheds thousands of skin cells a day and unless you plan on cleaning huge areas around you every time you move, the reality of truly hiding your biological footprint is slim. What the “Invisible” spray does though is force people to think about just how much they are exposed - to everything - at all time, around them. And Dewey-Hagborg is very aware of this.
“This will be a functional product for sale, but I am an artist and this is the continuation of my interest in genetic privacy issues that emerged working on Stranger Visions. The point here is connecting biological surveillance to the electronic surveillance we have all become aware of. We are depositing genetic information all of over the place all the time without given it a second thought. I want to try to create tools that empower people to make decisions about how they share this information.”