CRYPTO-CURRENCIES, BLOCKCHAIN, AND DNA

February 22, 2018 By Joseph P. Farrell

Well, sooner or later it was bound to happen: crypto-currencies and the underlying blockchain technology are being advocated as a means to exercise personal control over who gets your genetic information; no longer can corporations take a genetic sample from you and then sell the data, reap a profit, without tossing so much as a one penny to the person who's DNA it is.

At least, that's the idea as outlined in this article shared by Mr. T.M.:

New cryptocurrencies could let you control and sell access to your DNA data

Here's the core of the argument:

How could blockchain-based DNA marketplaces address these issues?

Marketplaces for buying and selling DNA data would be established by the creation of dedicated cryptocurrency “tokens”.

People will be able to sell their (encrypted) genomic data to researchers for tokens, which they can cash out or use to buy services, such as disease risk reports.

All transactions would be securely recorded on the blockchain.

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The article goes on to mention three DNA-based crypto-currencies: Encrypgen, Zenome, and Luna DNA, each of which has a slightly different approach in how it uses the technology to charge fees for use of genetic information:

Encrypgen

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Consumers can use one of the sequencing providers on the private blockchain, or upload their DNA sequence from another provider. Access is controlled by the user. If DNA data comes from another provider, you may have already signed an agreement that allows third-party data access.

You will be notified if someone wants to buy access to your genome (using Encrypgen’s $DNA tokens) and can say yes or no. You can remove your genome from the service (and future access) whenever you want, but any use previously granted would continue.

Zenome

Zenome’s platform makes use of the computing resources of many “nodes” (different people’s computers) in a distributed approach to genomic analysis. To protect user privacy, genomic data is fragmented so that no node has a full copy. Personal information is stored on a user’s own computer and encrypted.

Initially, it will be free to upload data. In return you receive secure storage and a free report about your health and origin. Users can sell access and buy analysis services using Zenome DNA (ZNA) tokens.

Luna DNA

Users can upload data to Luna’s protected database if they provide broad consent to studies. Users will receive Luna Coin in return for important information such as health data.

This broad consent will allow relevant third parties (like academic researchers and pharmaceutical companies) to conduct discovery projects on de-identified data for a fee.

Now, at first glance, this is a good thing, for it does restore a measure of sovereignty to the individual over his or her own genome. There are however, looming problems, and the article mentions a few of them: (1) ease of use and informed consent are at stake, since the technology itself is "difficult to use"; (2) Quality: which corporations or research entities are supporting "sound science", in other words, the is no "consumer" protection built into the proposed systems as yet, and equally, this would apply to the customer buying particular DNA: how does one represent and guarantee the product being utilized? (3) Price: as has been seen in recent days and weeks, crypto-currencies are volatile, and as the article points out, creating such DNA-related crypto-currencies could conceivably drive up research costs, which in turn would drive up health care costs; (4) Privacy and security: one does not have to linger over this one, for one of the "selling points" of crypto-currencies, at least initially, was that they were relatively "secure". Recent stories have shown that they, too, can be hacked. (5) Centralization: there is danger that, like all emergent technologies, the initial number of crypto-currencies based on DNA would dwindle and be concentrated into a very few hands.

As one might expect, however, I have some wild high octane speculation of my own to suggest, and it's a frightening one: since the purpose of the proposal is to give individuals control of their DNA, one can imagine the situation will eventually emerge that certain types of genomes will be sought: oriental people, males, females, blacks, whites, and so on. In other words, one can predict the rise of demographically-based DNA-crypto-currencies. And that in turn could lead to a rather frightening scenario, for we have already seen the emergence of futures markets in crypto-currencies, and thus, we could see the emergence of "black female DNA" futures or "Chinese male DNA futures," and thus end not only with a further dehumanization of society and a further reduction of human physical existence to a commodity to be bought and sold, but such demographically-based crypto-currencies would, I suggest, then become a basis for further social division and cynical manipulation, as one demographic's "crypto-currency" became more valuable than another's.

Sometimes the simplest solution is to just say no: no, my DNA is not a commodity to be bought and sold; no, you may not take it and shift it around from company to company without my consent, and so on. And, no: it is not a basis for backing a currency, for ultimately, this is a kind of slavery. The only difference is that now, as opposed to then, the bankers have the technology to track the "asset", and hence, to perfect the capitalization of the whole scheme.

The bottom line for me? This may seem like a good thing at first glance, but it hides implications that could lead to a multitude of sins.

See you on the flip side...