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DNA Death Mask

I attended the International Association of Privacy Professionals’ Navigate 2013 conference last week. Even though it meant staying inside on a glorious June day, it was time well spent.

Navigate is not a typical gathering of compliance-focused professionals. The content and format is designed to challenge beliefs and standard approaches to the issue of privacy management. One particularly effective presentation in that vein was that of artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg, whose video on DNA spoofing had people squirming – and not just out of squeamishness.

Part of Dewey-Hagborg’s presentation was a discussion of how, by collecting DNA samples left behind on things like chewing gum, cigarette butts, and hair, genetic profiles can be generated that allow her to produce masks on a 3D printer that represent a best guess as to what the person to whom the DNA sample belongs looks like – a DNA death mask of sorts. While the results seemed straight out of science fiction, her project was conducted using readily available tools and technologies

Through her presentation, Dewey-Hagborg challenged the attendees – innovators, creators, and administrators alike – to think more broadly about privacy. Privacy means different things to different people, and challenges to the management and security of an individual’s privacy can come from unexpected places.

The notion that an artist from New York City has a role to play in shaping the future of online privacy might seem anathema to some, but when we open Pandora’s Box to millions of online users, there’s no telling what the outcome will be.

That’s why it pays to be aware of the implications of leaving information unprotected. Just as DNA can be sampled from a piece of chewing gum thoughtlessly discarded underneath a table somewhere in the heart of a city, information carelessly shared online might end up in the hands of someone who is interested in building a profile of a different kind. They may have designs for your digital jetsam that you never anticipated.

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