As the scope of the NSA’s bulk surveillance program becomes all too clear, less attention has been paid to the issues surrounding genetic information and surveillance. BioGenFutures, a new company-cum-art-project launched by information artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg, hopes to bring DNA surveillance back to the fore. The company just announced a product it calls “Invisible,” which endeavors to make it harder for authorities to trace left-behind DNA evidence back to people. Not only is the product actually launching to consumers, but Dewey-Hagborg believes solutions of its kind will be commonplace within five years.
Back in 2012, Dewey-Hagborg premiered “Stranger Visions” at New York City’s Eyebeam lab. At the time, that project focused on how the physical traces we leave behind in everyday spaces — saliva, skin, and hair follicles — can becomes liabilities if regulations aren’t put in place to restrict how that genetic data is mined. “I was just really disturbed but also preoccupied by this emerging possibility of genetic surveillance,” she told The Verge. “It just struck me that we were having a national dialogue about electronic surveillance, but this form of biological surveillance isn’t being discussed.” “Invisible” expands on that work by imagining a future wherein discrimination based on genetics is an everyday fear.
“Invisible” comes with two sprays, both of which can be combined to keep your identity safe from those sifting for it. The first, “Erase,” is essentially a lab cleaning agent that can allegedly destroy 99.5 percent of trace materials. The second, “Replace,” covers up the remaining .5 percent with DNA material from other sources. Dewey-Hagborg calls it high security in spray form.
Of course, the work itself is knowingly informed by art, and draws on theatrical hyperbole in illustrating the quasi-dystopian future that could conceivably call for ways to erase traces of your DNA. For example, one section of the site cheekily reads, “Dinner with the prospective in-laws going smoothly? Don’t let them judge you based on your DNA, be invisible.” Nonetheless, Dewey-Hagborg cites the passage of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) in 2008 and the more recent case of the NYPD trying and failing to link Occupy Wall Street activists to a murder using DNA evidence in 2012 as examples of the powers-that-be taking more assured steps into genetics and reasons for why citizens should have the choice to make their DNA harder to track.
BioGenFutures will release “Invisible” to the market sometime this June, after which Dewey-Hagborg and her company will test out how consumers feel about the idea. “I think, basically, this is just the beginning,” she says. “This is my first prototype. These issues will only continue to emerge and become a part of our everyday lives.”
Kwame Opam, The Verge