Healthcare // Security & Privacy
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8/25/2014
12:35 PM
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When Big Data & Infants' Privacy Collide

Technology allows researchers to discover newborns' genetic secrets, but the long-term repercussions worry some parents and privacy advocates.

Healthcare Dives Into Big Data
Healthcare Dives Into Big Data
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For decades, hospitals have conducted blood tests on newborns, checking babies for various conditions, treatable and not. Today's less costly tests, genomic research, and technological advances, coupled with differing policies across states, worry some privacy and ethics advocates.

Whereas some states allow parents to opt-in for testing, others have an opt-out approach. Critics argue parents have little to no say in whether this data is collected, where and how long it's stored, and what organizations do with this information. Lower genome testing costs sparked debate about researchers' right to use this information; who should learn of infants' chronic conditions and when; and the type of data government, researchers, payers, or healthcare providers can cull. Other concerns surround the storage and transmission of data that's not de-identified and its potential theft.

"With genetic testing, you always have to find out the results. You need counseling. You deprive the child of genetic privacy forever," said Twila Brase, president and co-founder of the Citizens' Council for Health Freedom. "The only person who should sequence a person is the person."

[Two sides to the same coin. Healthcare Big Data: Blessing And Curse.]

Policies vary by state -- and by legislation.

In May, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed a law allowing the state to indefinitely store blood spots for future research. Parents can opt out. In New York, parents can decline testing for religious reasons, said the Wadsworth Center, NY Department of Health, which screens the state's newborns for more than 40 inherited metabolic conditions.

Opting out of a process, especially when parents typically receive a pamphlet on DNA collection within 24 hours of birth, is not informed consent, said Brase. In response to a lawsuit, Minnesota in 2011 destroyed all previously collected blood samples. Likewise, in 2009 Texas destroyed more than 5 million samples after plaintiffs successfully argued the state failed to get parental authorization. Parents, fearful their infants' DNA would be stored in perpetuity and potentially used by groups such as law enforcement or insurance companies, argued the collection violated constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizure. After this lawsuit, another family worked with the Texas Civil Rights Project to sue Texas regarding at least 8,800 samples that could not be destroyed because they were in the hands of the federal government for use in a DNA database designed to identify missing persons and solve cold criminal cases. This national database of mitochondrial DNA includes de-identified DNA information, Texas officials told the Texas Tribune at the time.

Some people wanted Texas officials to individually contact parents for retroactive permission to store the data. But that would have been expensive and time consuming.

"The state kept those blood spots, de-identified them, and then stored and used the blood spots for research. People found out about this and were upset because the government kept their infants' DNA without parental consent," Brenda Tso, a healthcare attorney at Khouri Law Firm told InformationWeek. "In reaction to the Texas Department of State Health Services blood spot fiasco, the legislature passed a law requiring that a disclosure statement be given to parents about their infant's blood spots being collected, stored, and used for research. Under the law, parents can request to have the blood spot destroyed. When the infant reaches adulthood, he can also request to have his blood spot destroyed."

As a result, millions of blood spots were destroyed, said Tso, who worked on public health legislation for the Texas House of Representatives in 2011.

Destroying samples after researchers conduct infant tests and allowing parents to opt-in to further testing would promote transparency and trust, privacy advocates have said. This way, healthcare organizations could continue checking babies for inherited diseases while preventing newborns' DNA from further use or inclusion in any database, state or national.

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Alison Diana has written about technology and business for more than 20 years. She was editor, contributors, at Internet Evolution; editor-in-chief of 21st Century IT; and managing editor, sections, at CRN. She has also written for eWeek, Baseline Magazine, Redmond Channel ... View Full Bio

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jagibbons
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jagibbons,
User Rank: Ninja
8/25/2014 | 3:50:13 PM
Re: Pros and Cons
DNA is basically a fingerprint. Perhaps the likelihood is remote, but I don't think there's a big gap between starting with a de-personalized sample and then linking up more identifiable data when more data points enter the system in the future. Once it's out there, it's out there. Given the rate of technology and medical research change over the last several decades, I don't think it is possible to foresee either the positive or negative ramifications of data like this. That uncertainty, which could lead to cures and to various forms of discrimination, is why I'm hesitant.

There is tremendous value in medical research. For me, the public good of having access to that data doesn't automatically trump privacy issues.
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
8/25/2014 | 3:41:45 PM
Re: Pros and Cons
I wrote carte blunch with the exclusion of personally identifiable information. How could such aggregated data possibly hurt anybody?
jagibbons
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jagibbons,
User Rank: Ninja
8/25/2014 | 3:28:11 PM
Re: Pros and Cons
I don't think I could go as far as to say carte blanch. That's a pretty big jump for "the good of public health." I'm sure others would agree with you, though.
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
8/25/2014 | 3:21:36 PM
Re: Pros and Cons
I think states and medical researches should have carte blanch to collect any data, so long as it's NOT attched to personally identifiable information. The good of public health can only be served by having as much data as possible on the human populace. No names, no social security numbers, no addresses, no phone numbers, but everything else? Have at it. Perhaps down the road it will lead to a genomic text for X predisposition or disease and the DNA I shared will come back to help me.
jagibbons
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jagibbons,
User Rank: Ninja
8/25/2014 | 2:19:38 PM
Re: Pros and Cons
I agree that this is a very sticky issue. Education and informed decision making is the only way to work through this. As a father of two, I can definitively state that I was not really in sound mind during the first 24-48 hours at the hospital. Do the immediate tests if necessary, but don't do anything else with that sample until the parents can make an informed decision.
Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
8/25/2014 | 2:11:18 PM
Pros and Cons
One side of me wants infants to get as much DNA testing as possible, recognizing early treatment can vastly improve a child's life in the case of many conditions. Yet critics raise valid points: What if tests show your child is at risk for a condition that will affect them when they are an adult -- Does the parent or state have the right to know? Who tells the child and when? Or should the chlld have the option not to know, in the same way many adults choose not to undergo genetic testing? What happens to the DNA? What safeguards are in place to prevent its use by police; no one wants to believe their child will become a criminal, but if that happens could law enforcement already be able to access their DNA? And what processes do states use to de-identify data? Are we secure that this database can't be hacked?

You don't need to be a conspiracy theorist to admit there are some ethical and security questions here. And you don't need to be a huge privacy advocate to also admit there are some real benefits to those children found to flourish with very early medical intervention. 

Must say though, when I learned more about this process and found out how it was done where my daughter was born, I was upset that I knew nothing about the bigger implications of the heel test. Granted, my daughter is a teen now, genetic testing was more expensive and big data wasn't a catch phrase (although I had been covering tech for many years prior to her birth), but you'd hope institutions were more transparent about this whole area. Let consumers know what's going on. Usually, we're much more approachable and agreeable when we're educated.
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