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With a Little Help from my Friends (and Colleagues): The Multidisciplinary Requirement for Privacy

posted by:Carlisle Adams // 11:59 PM // February 28, 2006 // ID TRAIL MIX


It is probably not unfair to say that many subjects of academic interest do not force, or even encourage, their researchers to look outside the confines of a fairly narrow field of study. An example with which I am familiar, but which is only one example of many that could be cited, is the field of cryptography. It is quite possible for a researcher in this field to spend his or her entire career – indeed, a rewarding and productive career – making, breaking, and repairing encryption algorithms and security protocols without ever thinking very deeply about where and how these might be used in the real world. The beauty, the elegance, and the mystery of the underlying mathematics can be more than sufficient to fill the researcher’s attention (providing both “stick” and “carrot”) without all those messy peripheral areas of implementation details, environmental considerations (how the surrounding applications and operating systems will make use of these algorithms and protocols), and user issues (interfaces, usability, performance, and so on). A researcher in cryptography does not have to be confined so narrowly (and many are not), but nothing inherent in the field requires this broader view.

Privacy differs from such subjects in that thinking about implementation details, the surrounding environment, and user issues is of the utmost importance. Furthermore, not only are these aspects important, but they also force us to recognize the multidisciplinary nature of this field: implementation details often fall into the domain of the technological; the surrounding environment leads to a consideration of applicable laws and policies; and user issues have to do with the social understanding and desire for privacy. It is difficult (perhaps impossible?) to successfully look at privacy through a purely technical set of glasses; researchers with a primarily technical focus must also think about the context of a situation and about the human users involved. Cryptography is about protecting data, and one can think in completely abstract terms about an equation that will fail to hold true if a single bit in a data stream is flipped from 1 to 0, or from 0 to 1. Privacy, however, is about protecting personal data from other people. It is a person or a legal system (not an equation!) that draws the distinction between “data” and “personal data”, and it is our social and legal understanding of privacy that determines when another person has inappropriately learned or used some personal data.

An example may help to illustrate the need for multiple disciplines in privacy. Consider a “tip line” to the police department. Tips can be helpful in crime prevention and, especially, in solving criminal cases, but many people (out of fear or a simple desire to “not get involved”) would prefer not to use a tip line if the tip could be traced back to them. Consequently, many police departments have established anonymous tip lines. Such lines are often implemented using a telephone number, but let us imagine that a police department would instead like to implement this as an anonymous e-mail service.

Technical Solutions for E-mail Tip Line Anonymity

Thinking about a solution from a purely technical point of view might lead us in one of two possible directions. The first direction is what we might call “anonymizing the channel”. Say a user named Alice would like to send a crime tip to the police department anonymously. As we know, Alice’s computer uses two important protocols, the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP), to send data from her machine to any other machine on the Internet. Any data that she sends will be broken into small packets (typically fewer than 1500 characters); each packet is put into an envelope that contains a number of pieces of information, including the sender address, the destination address, a sequence number (so that all the packets can be reassembled into the right order at the destination), and a checksum that can be used at the destination to see if any errors have been introduced into the packet during transmission. TCP is responsible for breaking data into packets, putting packets into envelopes, and recombining packets into the original data message at the receiving end. IP is responsible for routing each packet through the network so that it arrives at the destination as quickly as possible (note that each packet, because it has full addressing information in its envelope, can be routed independently of all the others and may therefore take its own individual path to the destination).

The source address in the packet envelope is the obvious enemy in the battle for privacy. Techniques for anonymizing the channel seek to strip this identifying information from data without requiring massive changes to the way the Internet currently works (that is, without having to change the universally-deployed TCP and IP protocols). The idea behind the “onion routing” approach to this is simple and elegant: Alice’s machine will take her tip for the police department and put this inside a message destined for some other machine (say Machine X). When Machine X receives its message, it will find something inside for the police department and will send this to the police department. The police will receive their tip, but the IP packets of the tip will have a source address of Machine X (not Alice’s machine). In real onion routing networks (see, for example, Tor [1]), many such intermediate machines are used, and encryption is employed at each layer so that the contents of a layer can only be read by the intended recipient for that layer. Each recipient has no way of knowing whether the machine from which it received the message was the original sender or just some other intermediate node, so Alice’s identifying address is effectively hidden from all machines.

The other possible direction for protecting Alice may be called “anonymizing the source”. A popular technique in this area is the public Internet café. Alice can simply go to an Internet café in a large city and send her crime tip in the clear from one of the machines there. Because anyone in the world (theoretically) could have gone to the café and sent a message from that machine to the police department, the message cannot be traced to Alice. This is the Internet equivalent of Alice going to a public telephone in a busy shopping center to call in a crime tip.

A truly paranoid user might of course choose both alternatives: Alice can go to a popular Internet café and send her crime tip from that machine through an anonymizing channel such as Tor. Alice may then feel quite confident that her data packets cannot be traced back to her by the police department or by anyone else sniffing packets on the Internet.

The Insufficiency of Technology

Research [2, 3] has shown, however, that the above approaches may be insufficient, even if they work perfectly at a technical level. In particular, classical stylometry (the study of linguistic style, typically in written language; see, for example, [4, 5]) can be used to analyze the content of a message in order to link the message with its author. Such analysis includes not just preferred words and phrases, but also sentence construction, spelling patterns (both correct and incorrect), grammatical idiosyncrasies, and other syntactic and semantic scrutiny of message content.

In empirical tests, the authors of [2] have found that reasonable analysis requires about 6,500 words known to be authored by a single individual. In other words, once an analyst has at least 6,500 words authored by Alice, he has a reasonable chance of determining whether or not an article of unknown authorship was indeed written by Alice. The unfortunate implication of this is that those who frequently publicize their work (including, for example, researchers who publish articles, conference papers, and book chapters on the importance of, and need for, privacy) are the very ones who may find it most difficult to post an anonymous letter. In an interesting twist of irony, those who desire privacy most and have worked most actively to achieve it in our society may have unintentionally thrown it away for themselves.

Note that the group of people who “frequently publicize their work” includes, for example, the growing number of otherwise hidden individuals that have decided to make their personal blogs available on the Internet. With movie stars, politicians, sports heroes, and others, we have come to recognize that people who choose a public life now may, to their regret, find it exceedingly difficult to have a private life in the future. The same appears to hold true for our public and private digital lives, and it may be worth taking this into consideration before deciding to post our musings and opinions to the world.

Help from our Friends?

The above discussion serves to remind us that technology alone cannot be a solution: privacy requires more than a group of technical researchers inventing Internet cafés and “anonymous channels”. Privacy is an attitude, a state of mind, a conscious decision. Like a professional actor playing a role well, sending an anonymous communication may require us to step outside ourselves (our personalities and habits) in order to create a piece of writing that says what we intend, but is truly distinct from all our other writing. Thus, for those that lead public lives (including privacy researchers), anonymity may be a form of role-playing, or at least may be an activity requiring focused attention and determined effort. Technologists may be able to “unlink” a message from our machines, but it will probably take the sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers to understand what it means to “unlink” a message from ourselves, and it will probably take the lawyers and policymakers to set out constraints for when and where this is socially acceptable behaviour.

If we wish to have effective privacy, therefore, it is clear that we need the perspectives and contributions of many different research communities. This can be challenging, but it is also what makes this field so stimulating and so interesting. In the end, it is the only recipe for success. As Lennon and McCartney said, “I get by with a little help from my friends, with a little help from my friends.”


[1] “Tor: an anonymous Internet communication system”; see http://tor.eff.org

[2] J. R. Rao and P. Rohatgi, “Can Pseudonymity Really Guarantee Privacy?”, Proceedings of the Ninth USENIX Security Symposium, Aug. 2000, pp. 85–96. Available at http://www.usenix.org/publications/library/proceedings/sec2000/full_papers/rao/rao.pdf

[3] J. Novak, P. Raghavan, and A. Tomkins, “Anti-Aliasing on the Web”, Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on the World Wide Web, 2004, pp. 30–39.

[4] Wikipedia: Stylometry; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stylometry

[5] The Signature Stylometric System; see http://www.etext.leeds.ac.uk/signature

Carlisle Adams is Associate Professor at the School of Information Technology and Engineering (SITE), University of Ottawa.
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Mandatory thumbprinting for the LSAT: an appropriate use of biometrics?

posted by:Philippa Lawson // 11:41 PM // February 21, 2006 // ID TRAIL MIX


Some recent complaints to three privacy commissioners in Canada have put the spotlight on the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), the US-based non-profit corporation that administers the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) throughout North America. The complaints focuse on LSAC’s requirement for a thumbprint by all test-takers. The Alberta, B.C., and federal privacy commissioners have launched a joint investigation into the LSAT complaints.

LSAC requires all test-takers to provide a thumbprint, along with name, date of birth, SIN, gender, race/ethnicity, and signature. It has been requiring thumbprints for 31 years. The purpose of the thumbprint, according to LSAC, is to deter imposter test-takers. Thumbprints are not imaged or digitalized, and are not accessible by computer. LSAC claims to maintain a high level of security of the document on which the thumbprint is recorded. It shreds the documents five years after collection.

LSAT isn't the only test administrator to require biometric identification of test-takers: the GMAT and MCAT, used for business and medical school admissions, collect thumbprints as well as digital photographs.

So what's wrong with this practice?

Mandatory collection of biometric identifiers is anathema to many people for a number of reasons. Some people object to the collection of their biometric data because of its association with tyrannical governments or criminal law enforcement. Some object simply because they find it intrusive. Some object to it on religious grounds.

More reasoned objections focus on the risks that collection and storage of biometric data poses to individual privacy. Once digitally stored, biometric data - like any other data - is easily copied, transmitted, altered and searched. But unlike other personal data such as names, addresses and identification numbers, biometric data does not change. And unlike credit cards, passports, and drivers licences, biometric data cannot be invalidated and substituted once compromised.

Another set of objections focuses on reliance on technology for the granting or denying of rights and privileges. While there are obvious advantages to such reliance (e.g., avoidance of human bias and corruption), there are also legitimate concerns about accountability and due process in the event of system failures. And studies have shown that biometric identification systems are by no means fool-proof. When used for authentication purposes, their reliability depends in part on the way in which they are administered.

Given the legitimate privacy concerns associated with fingerprinting, it is not surprising that complaints have been lodged. What is surprising is that LSAC has required thumbprints for 31 years, yet the issue has only recently come to the fore. Indeed, many of us who took the LSAT during this period (the author included) have no recollection of providing a thumbprint, although we must have done so!

No doubt the explanation for the recent complaints has to do with the relatively recent promulgation of privacy laws in Canada, and growing public awareness of citizen rights under these laws.

The federal Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (“PIPEDA”), which came into force in 2001, is based on a set of widely accepted fair information principles. One of these principles is that organizations should not collect more personal information than necessary for the purposes that they have identified. Another is that those purposes must be reasonable.

In the LSAT case, the stated purpose of collecting thumbprints (to deter fraud) is clearly reasonable. But is the collection of thumbprints necessary to achieve this purpose? Do other, less intrusive but equally effective methods of deterring fraud exist? And is the fraud-deterrent value of thumbprinting proportional to its privacy invasiveness? The privacy commissioners now investigating this matter will have to answer these questions.

LSAC defends the practice as minimally privacy invasive, especially since the thumbprints are not digitized. Moreover, LSAC states that it typically objects to providing thumbprints in response to subpoenas for test-taker records, and destroys the thumbprint records after five years. Hence, concerns about subsequent uses of biometric data stored on computers may be inapplicable to this particular practice. But what’s to stop LSAC from digitizing the thumbprints in the future?

In any case, LSAC must still explain why other, less intrusive identification methods (such as the presentation of photo ID) are inadequate for the purpose of deterring fraud. Perhaps it is necessary to collect and store individual identifiers for some time after the test is administered, in order to be able to authenticate identities after the fact, in response to allegations of fraud. If so, are non-digitized thumbprints the least intrusive method?

Concerns about mandatory thumbprinting by LSAC and other test administrators have been heightened by the existence of the USA Patriot Act, which allows FBI access to private sector databases of customer information for counter-terrorism purposes, without any reasonable or probable cause to suspect wrongdoing by the individuals whose information is being disclosed. Because LSAC is US-based, it is potentially subject to Patriot Act orders. Although LSAC may not digitize the thumbprints it collects, there is no guarantee that the FBI would not do so, were it to demand test-taker records. Moreover, Patriot Act requests come with gag orders, so that individuals whose information has been gathered by the FBI and possibly added to terrorist watch lists or no-fly lists won’t know it.

In light of the growing vulnerability of personal data to potential abuse, it is important that governments and corporations alike limit their collection of personal data – especially biometric and digitized data – to that which is necessary for the purpose in question. The LSAT complaints have highlighted an issue that will no doubt arise with greater frequency in the future. If we want to maintain the level of privacy that currently underlies our free and democratic societies, we all have to be vigilant against the overuse of biometrics and be prepared to exercise our rights to keep it in check.

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Biopower and Biotechnology

posted by:Krystal Kreye // 03:09 AM // February 17, 2006 // Commentary &/or random thoughts

Foucault tells us that there are two poles of biopower (1) the human species and (2) the human body. In "The Problem of Government" he tells us that this power is "both an individualizing and a totalizing form of power [and] never in the history of human societies has there been such a tricky combination in the same political structures of individualization techniques, and of totalization procedures".
One of the disciplinary technologies today that employs this individualizing technique is obviously biotechnology. It is also totalizing in the sense that biotechnology indicates to us our membership in a homogenous social body but at the same time imposes on us that homogeneity (from "Normalizing Judgment"). One could say that biotechnology is the 'pinnacle' of individualizing techniques because it is able to examine what is most particular about us. When Foucault talks about the 'examination' in "The Means of Correct Training" he is talking about documentary techniques in a form very different than what we experience today. Nonetheless, the theory of making individuals into "cases" is still an accurate theory for the description of biotechnology.
He tells us that for a long time ordinary individuals remained below the everyday threshold of description. To be seen, followed, monitored, or written about was a privelege. The accounting of peoples lives was a ritual for the upper classes. However, "disciplinary methods reversed this relation, lowered the threshold of describable individuality, and made of this description a means of control and domination." The turning of lived lives into data was and is no longer a procedure of heroization; it now functions as a procedure for objectifying and subjectifying.
What is interesting about Foucault's discussion on 'disciplinary technologies' is his observation and emphasis that these technologies should not be thought of in negative terms. We should not think about certain biotechnologies as repressive or invasive or abstracting tools. In fact, we should think about them as producers. Now, it is not the case that because we do not think about them negatively then we must think about them positively, Foucault was not someone who thought in dichotomies...it was to think about them differently. So, bio-power and its technologies 'produce' individuals (maybe in a positive way and maybe in a negative way - that is left for us to decide). In fact, he argues that they produce reality; they produce "domains of objects and rituals of truth". So, us - as individual objects - and the truth that is gained from us after being individualized in these ways all belong to this production.
From this theoretical framework we can see how what is being 'produced' - the reality that is created after our information has left us - is extremely problematic. Not only is the individual analyzed apart from the group but the individual is analyzed apart from themselves.

These are just some thoughts that I have been having and if they seem scrambled it is because it's a fairly new topic of reflection for me. I invite any comments or insights...even a 'what are you talking about?' is probably in order.

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Privacy and Sophistry

posted by:Hugh Hunter // 11:58 PM // February 14, 2006 // ID TRAIL MIX


For one of Google's founders, Sergey Brin, "The perfect search engine would be like the mind of God" (quoted by Charles Ferguson in Technology Review, "What's Next for Google" Jan/2005). The idea of being judged by an all-knowing God is unpleasant enough, and being exposed to a computer program, a thing of silicon and wires - well the prospect is not a pleasant one. But the idea that Google or other internet programs could reach such dizzying heights (minus the hyperbole about God) is certainly not a crazy one. Here I'd like to take a semi-reflective look at the conceptual issues implicit in saying that the internet, or various functions thereof, are mind-of-God wannabes. Several issues are wrapped up in this, and I think it's worth separating them out.

In an obvious way, it is not a bad thing to have a search engine that is like the mind of God. On the contrary, this way of thinking about the internet in general brings out one of its finer features: it has a truth finding capacity. In a fascinating article called "Internet Killed the Alien Star" (TCS Daily, 9 Nov/2005), Douglas Kern outlines the action of this capacity in the case of the alien movement. One might have thought that the medium of the internet would be congenial to the alien movement. What better way to spread stories of alien sightings and such than by blogs and other online fora?

But it turned out that the audiences that could be reached by these media were too big, and a big enough group contains what one might call 'debunkers', in the form of people who can refute stories of aliens. If Joe claims he saw lights over Roswell, other Roswell residents, or worse, Roswell meteorologists can swiftly debunk him. A kind of information libertarianism seems to operate online, in that the ability to say anything leads to an advance of knowledge, rather than the opposite. Wikipedia, the interactive online encyclopedia, is another example of the internet generating new information from uncoordinated individual resources. 'Constructors' add to Wikipedia, debunkers remove what is false, and the result is as close as human beings are likely to get in this life to the mind of the Maker. This is, I think, what Brin had in mind. And it's easy to see what makes the idea attractive.

Nor is it incidental to matters of privacy. Privacy is the cost which must often be weighed against the benefit of such libertarian projects. God knows everything, and the closer one comes to this sort of knowledge, the more of human life will become exposed. Confronted with this situation, it seems that people naturally divide into two camps. Some people are naturally cautious and reluctant to pay this cost in privacy. Others are naturally enthusiastic about them: people like Sergey Brin.

But questions about omniscience far predates Sergey Brin or his brainchild, Google. The Greek Sophists, in fact, made much the same claims for Sophistry, their art, which they touted as an 'expertise on life'. Protagoras, for instance, said that students of his would improve daily, not in any one respect, but somehow overall. And the Greeks, too, were divided in their response to this art. Even the word 'sophist' captures this mistrust: it was coined to ambiguate between the meanings of 'wise man' and 'wise guy'. The feeling was that the Sophists were too smart, they were loose cannons. At Socrates' trial, the prosecution damningly painted Socrates himself as a Sophist.

I think these Greek sentiments are instructive for our own situation. One of the biggest objections to the Sophists was that their loyalties were unclear. On the one hand, they often worked in the law courts, and were thought to teach "how to make the weaker case appear the stronger". On the other hand, they described themselves as 'cosmopolitan', meaning that they were equally at home in every city. The Greek on the street thought of his loyalties as radiating outward from his own family to his own city. Sophists, although their knowledge was admired in the abstract, didn't fit into any of the Greek system of loyalties. At least they didn't until Pericles became the de facto ruler of Athens.

Pericles steered Athens through what came to be called its golden age: he was a contemporary of Socrates the philosopher, Aristophanes the playwright, Anaxagoras the scientist, and Protagoras the Sophist to name just a few of the famous figures of his time. But Pericles wholeheartedly embraced Sophism, integrated it with his policies on Athenian life and foreign policy (it largely took the view that was later described as Realpolitik). Athens became progressively more and more committed to the Sophist movement. Once it was clear that this was Athenian Sophism, the Athenian on the street quickly warmed to the idea. For similar reasons I think that many of the worries about the information contained in the internet are not worries about privacy invasions per se, but rather concerns about control.

If Brin is right, the internet, like Sophistry, is a powerful tool. But like any such tool it is dangerous when it is uncontrolled. It may well be possible to reconcile both ways of thinking about the internet by realizing that it is control of the internet, not it's mechanisms, which are of concern to us.

But there is still, I suspect, a deeper aspect of the concern about the internet becoming a Protagorean 'expert on life'. The digitally remastered figure of Protagoras is fearful because in the face of his great understanding, it is easy to feel exposed. In one of his short stories, O. Henry refers to the inexplicable jolt of guiltiness that even the most law-abiding citizen sometimes feels when a policeman looks directly at him. I suspect that this is part of a deeper worry about being known: a worry that is certainly justified if we are talking about the divine mind. What about the internet?

In this respect, with respect to Sergey Brin, I maintain that the internet is more like Protagoras than it is like the mind of God. That is, in the case of God to be known is to be exposed. But one of the prime arguments against the Sophists was raised by Socrates on the grounds that not only could they not really understand others, they could not even understand themselves.

The internet may use its resources to find out more facts about people than even Protagoras ever could. But there is no reason to think that these facts offer deep self/other-knowledge. Otherwise put, the internet offers an integration of information. But philosophy is the descendent of the Socratic quest for self-knowledge, and few would be so bold as to claim that its history shows that integration leads to consensus. I think we can take some comfort in Socrates, who said that knowing yourself (let alone others) is the task of a lifetime.

Many bad things might happen online, but if our worry is this deep kind of exposure, the internet is not our enemy. Or if it is, it is so because it is working in to support the interests of people or organizations who are our enemies (even if it is only enemies of our peace of mind). Our approach to the internet, if informed by this, would be one of seeking control when possible and strategic compromise with those more fully in control when it is not, rather than concern
over the mechanisms in question.

Hugh Hunter is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of British Columbia. He lives in Vancouver.
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Olympic Games, Gene Passports and Identity

posted by:Corien Prins // 11:09 PM // February 07, 2006 // ID TRAIL MIX


I like tentatively combining highly different developments and hopping from one thought to another. Internet is a perfect tool for doing this. It offers me challenging opportunities to develop a line of thought that I never expected to end up with when I initially started thinking about the first topic that crossed my mind. Here is one such scenario that developed while roaming the hyperlinked world that is called cyberspace: the Olympic Games, performance enhancement, gene passports and identity.

Anticipating the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Italy and reading about fears for yet another record number of doping cases, my mind sketched a scenario that started with the dramatic Olympic motto: faster, higher, stronger. And indeed, it is going to be a wonderfully exiting and spectacular period for those who love alpine-skiing, ice-skating, snowboarding or one of the many other icy sports that are on schedule for the Games. Numerous records will be broken by a selected few, who have the physical and mental capacity to reach out for the ultimate success in sports. And Turin, Italy, would therefore be my favourite place to be between February 10th and 23rd. Nevertheless, like many other millions of fans, I must be content with merely watching my favourites on the screen. Images of nervous athletes who keep on training their bodies and sponsors anxiously waiting to see whether the millions they spent will indeed increase brand awareness. My favourite athlete will, of course, do his or her utmost best but doing their best is definitely not good enough here. In the end there is only one ultimate test: going home with an Olympic gold medal.

I check the virtual newspaper, blogs and other online sources for the latest news on the physical and mental condition of my athletes. While reading this information, I come across discussions that testify that there is much more than just eternal fame. There is money as well. Millions of dollars for those who know how to play the game. Being successful in top sports definitely appears to be a highly lucrative business. And then I discover a webpage with a story about various incidents that shows that money changes the face of sports in a myriad of ways. One of these is the role performance enhancing instruments play. It is here that my academic background enters the scene regarding the challenges of technological opportunities. Of course, I hear myself mutter, technological progress is an increasingly important dimension in the meaning of modern-day sport. I am aware of various ‘simple’ improvements, such as a new type of ice skate, the klapskate, that allows the heel of the boot to rise and fall while the entire blade remains in contact with the ice. This and other technological improvements have been easily and widely introduced and are nowadays broadly accepted. But then I wonder, what about the opportunities offered by genetic performance modification? What about applications such a genetic doping, gene therapy and even the selection of athletes on the basis of genetic information? It may very well be that this new technology threats the very foundations of top sports. Then I ask myself, who will be the real winner of the Olympic gold medal, man or technology?

I think of the challenging questions that arise because of the introduction of gene-technology into the world of sports. Are athletes entitled to full autonomy when it comes to deciding whether to genetically enhance their performance? If not, how then do we determine and set the limits of genetic performance modification and, what value and moral concepts are of relevance here? What do terms such as fair play, dignity and personhood mean in this debate? And what about the personhood and the identity of genetically enhanced athletes? Genetic modification in sport certainly implies some deformation of the athlete’s personal authenticity and thus identity. What kind of people will such athletes then be?

I ask my search engine for answers. The first set of hits teaches me that for many it will be inevitable that gene-technology therapies will progressively be incorporated into the international sports arena. Some appear to worry about the effect of this development on the nature of sport. I read a comment in Wired from Friedmann, the Director of the Program in Human gene therapy, of the University of California-San Diego that he believes that instead of a feat of athleticism being the result of skill, training and dedication, in the future, people will wonder if the success of an athlete is merely a product of bioengineering: “It’s a threat to sport as we know it”, Friedmann argues. Others disagree. I come across an article from 2004 by Savulescu, Foddy and Clayton in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Their argument is that: “Performance enhancement is not against the spirit of sport; it is the spirit of sport. To choose to be better is to be human. Athletes should be the given this choice. Their welfare should be paramount. But taking drugs is not necessarily cheating. The legalisation of drugs in sport may be fairer and safer.” Provocative as well as inspiring are also the broadly available citations from Andy Miah’s analysis on genetic modification in sports, sport ethics and human values. “Sport is a technology and genetic modification is consistent with its most basic values”. Apparently, a key conclusion of his book entitled, Genetically Modified Athletes: Biomedical Ethics, Gene Doping, and Sport is that being human matters in sport, but genetic modification does not have to challenge this capacity. Miah concludes in saying that what is ethical about genetic modification in sport relies upon understanding what is valuable about being human. Human dignity, autonomy and the capacity for being capable of making strong evaluations are of key importance here. I immediately order his book from a well-known online bookstore.

But then it crosses my mind that genetics can, of course, offer much more than modification and doping dilemmas. I think about the opportunities genetics could offer for the prospective screening of athletes. Remembering the recent sudden death of a well-known soccer player in my country, I anticipate that screening for certain diseases or biological characteristics could eliminate dramatic consequences in sports, such as instant heart failure. Internet teaches me that worldwide, several countries have introduced cardiac screening for their sports men and women (I come across Italy, for example, where it is mandatory for representative athletes of all ages to undergo annual heart checks). Screening based on genetic information could dramatically enhance the success in contrast to using traditional screening procedures. But then I ask myself: where will this lead us and, what are the possible influences on society as a result of developments in the genetic screening field? I think of a future scenario in which amateur sports men and women are required to be tested for a possible predisposition to certain physical illnesses because they carry certain risk-taking genes. Quick reference to my search engine teaches me that while genetic screening of professional athletes offers hundreds of resources, there is little discussion on the use of gene testing on amateur athletes or the general public. I know that – well at least in my country – amateurs in different sports are required to obtain a certificate proving they are ‘qualified’ to carry out that particular sport (golf exam and horse riding exam). What about a certificate testifying that I am physically fit to participate in a certain sport? Would it not be a perfect idea, to provide me and my sports club with a certain level of security that I will not be struck by instant heart failure, or suffer from any other serious ailments, that could have been prevented had we known that I had a predisposition to this illness? I imagine a world where sport clubs require their members to carry such a ‘gene-passport’. Needless to say, the genetic data listed on this passport are also available to the many organizations and companies which have a obvious interest in this information: insurance companies, employers, public or private health companies. By that time it will also be generally accepted that genetic information provides clear indications on a person’s predisposition for bad behavior (for example his or her lack of empathy and remorse). I include this in my line of thought after visiting a website that cites a UK study showing that behavior is influenced by multiple genes and, a certain combination of genes may increase vulnerability to a disorder and other psychopathic tendencies. The source and study appear to be reliable – being funded by the UK Medical Research Council, the Department of Health and the Home Office and published in 2005 in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Apparently, I am not the only one who is thinking about the opportunities this information offers. Hsien Hsien Lei suggests on his Genetics and Public Health Blog that genetic information may play a key role in fighting terrorism and terrorists should donate their DNA for scientific research >, “so that we know what makes them tick.” Because, when reading on: “If there are risk-taking genes and genes for psycho-social behavior, then they must have a disproportionately high number of genes coding for deviant behavior. I know it is a human rights violation to conduct biological research on unwilling study participants, but maybe that could be part of their sentence.” And this is just the beginning. Initiatives such as the BioGrid project hope to piece together coherent pictures on what can be learned from genes, what can be predicted from them and, what practical applications can be developed.

My time is running out, other writing obligations wait and so I have to finish this story Internet is helping me to write. With a final query I hope to find perspectives on gene passports in sports. I am surprised that there is relatively little to be found. Horses seem to have such a passport, but I cannot find in-depth studies on the consequences when it is used in the field of amateur sports. One final try: identity and genes. For is it not genetic information that reveals the very essence of personal identity? Only a handful of references pop up. Authors such as Miah discuss identity in relation to concepts such as personhood, humanness and authenticity. Concepts that are familiar to those who try to understand what constitutes identity. But there is more. For one of the challenging dilemmas in genetics is that the information find may also tell you something about the ‘identity’ of a whole family.

I must rush, but it strikes me that we need to discuss more what the future of genetics will hold for the concept of identity. I admit that my brief ‘journey’ that started with the coming month’s Olympics merely raised questions and provided no answers, let alone a particular position or opinion. But perhaps my scenario will inspire readers to elaborate on the different interests at stake, the choices to be made and, generally the possible benefits and harms arising from the growing influence of gene technology in our society. Sports may be a perfect domain to start with. But don’t forget to watch this wonderful event that is called the Olympics.

Corien Prins is Professor at the Faculty of Law, Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society.
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3 Week Getaway in Washington, D.C.

posted by:Natalie Bellefeuille // 10:01 AM // February 02, 2006 // Walking On the Identity Trail

For the month of January, three graduate law students involved in the Anonymity Project, including myself, had the privilege of participating in an internship at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) located in Washington, D.C.

Upon our arrival, we were welcomed by spring-like weather, an amazing city waiting to be explored, and the young group of devoted individuals that makes up the EPIC team.

During our time there, we were each assigned one major project. The main project on which I worked consisted of preparing comments to a proposed rule according to which airlines and shiplines would be obligated to collect a greater amount of personal information from passengers, to store it in an electronic database, and to communicate this information to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention either upon request or when an ill passenger is identified.

But our time at EPIC was not exclusively spent working on our various projects. From following the Alito Supreme Court nomination hearings to attending a speech by Al Gore and a discussion panel at George Washington University on NSA Eavesdropping, there was no shortage of activities in which we were invited to take part. On the last day of our internship, we attended the Privacy Coalition Meeting, an annual event where representatives of various NGOs discuss the privacy issues faced by their organization. The Privacy Commissioner of Canada was a guest speaker at the Meeting.

This internship was a truly rewarding experience, and I thank everyone on the Anonymity Project who was involved in making it happen.

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This is a SSHRC funded project:
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada