Georgia State University College of Law
Emory University School of Law
July 16, 2014
We all - old and young, famous, infamous, and anonymous - incessantly drop pieces of our biology all around us as we shed skin, hairs, and nails, cough, sneeze, leave traces of blood, and respond to nature's callings. This constant and involuntary aspect of the human condition is going to create challenging legal questions as genetic testing and sequencing technology becomes ever more ubiquitous, rapid, and cheap. The continued advancement and availability of this technology practically guarantees that we are going to have to confront the legal status of the genetic material that we unknowingly discard and its availability for anyone to collect, analyze, use, and profit from. With the exception of criminal law, and the gathering and use of DNA evidence, the legal status of such involuntarily dropped biological matter - as opposed to biological samples obtained in a laboratory or hospital setting - has not yet been the subject of a publicized legal dispute. But it is only a matter of time before we face legal disputes over the ownership and use of such biological material, and the information it contains.
For many of us, the legal focus will continue to be on privacy and limits on the use of DNA and related information by researchers, employers, insurers, and others who might want to find out more about us. For those with qualities or traits that are generally admired or sought after, however, questions about the nature of the property rights, if any, in one's own genetic information are likely to become more pressing. Issues of ownership and use are likely to surface first in the collection, analysis, publication, and/or use of genetic material obtained from celebrities and public figures.
The diminished level of legally enforceable expectations of privacy for public figures and celebrities has already allowed for the emergence of a prosperous tabloid industry fueled by swarms of paparazzi. Might the lowered expectations of privacy that celebrities and public figures have apply also to their genetics? Could we soon witness paparazzi carrying swabs and sterile tubes in search for genetic materials dropped by the subjects of their pursuit? And, if so, is it possible that we will soon be able to learn about the predisposition of public figures to gamble or develop mental illnesses? Further, with the advent of CRISPR technology and the possibility of designing for change in DNA, could we, eventually, obtain certain desirable genetic attributes of our favorite celebrities? This article explores questions about the legal status of genetic information in a world in which genetic paparazzi are not only a possibility, but a probability.
Keywords: DNA, genetics, privacy, information, law
Date posted: July 18, 2014 ; Last revised: February 14, 2017