Controversial plans to genetically test everyone living in Dubai have raised fears that the privacy of three million people could be used to discriminate.
In an unprecedented move, officials in the sprawling metropolis in the UAE have announced they want to create the world’s largest genome database for its residents and British expats.
They claim it will spot diseases before they strike – similar to Minority Report, a 2002 film starring Tom Cruise, which saw police use technology to catch criminals before they commit crimes.
But privacy campaigners have warned the information obtained through the ‘concerning scheme’ could be violated.
‘Without doubt, the risks are especially high in a country that lacks electoral democracy, has a problematic criminal justice system and fails to uphold basic rights.
‘Even in the hands of employers or insurers, genetic information can be used to discriminate against people.
‘The health benefits of mass genetic profiling have long been disputed and I sincerely hope the UAE authorities give British expats the ability to opt out from this concerning scheme.’
It is not the first time a Middle Eastern country has genetically tested everyone.
Citizens and travellers to Kuwait faced jail if they didn’t submit DNA samples to authorities until the law was revoked last October.
Humaid Mohammed Al Qatami, director general of the Dubai Health Authority, told the Khaleej Times that the first phase of the project should be done by 2020.
He said: ‘The authority is looking to target all residents of the emirate of Dubai, focusing on UAE nationals in the first phase of implementation.
‘The project’s timetable extends over 24 months, during which we will be collecting samples, analysing DNA sequences, and recording the results in the data bank.’
The DHA warns there are 220 known genetic diseases in the Middle Eastern country, and are responsible for 70 per cent of infant mortality.
Thalassaemia, a deadly blood disorder, is common in the UAE. The country already screens couples before they marry to look for genetic disorders.
The plans, launched as part of the Dubai 10X Initiative, are significantly bigger than any currently underway in the UK.
In contrast, the UK Biobank – considered to be one of the most ambitious projects in the world – aims to sequence only 500,000 Britons.
The DHA will compile the genetic coding of every resident into a database – which would be the world’s biggest – to search for those at risk.
Artificial intelligence will identify anyone with a genetic profile that is similar to ones of residents and expats with a genetic disease. It is estimated there are around 250,000 British expats living in the UAE.
And, in an era of widespread cyber-hacking, security experts are gravely concerned the data from around three million people could easily end up in the wrong hands.
It is unsure what protection will be in place for the data obtained by the DHA – but even tech giant Microsoft has been attacked by hackers before.
James Knight, of US tech firm Digital Warfare, told MailOnline that the ‘ambitious’ database was ‘very alarming’.
He said: ‘One’s genome is highly intimate and the consequences of it being stolen haven’t fully been imagined.
‘Privacy protection should have been considered from the start of a project like this. It is unclear how the Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC) laws would protect the data.
‘There is no general federal data protection law in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) comparable to those applicable in Europe.
‘There is also no single national data protection regulator. Even if there was, practically speaking, implementation and real protection of us something else entirely.’
‘I can’t imagine the database would be kept on a private network physically air gapped from the internet.
‘I can imagine it being available to different research groups and doctors that would require it being connected to the internet in someway.
‘If this happens, this highly valuable database would be targeted and hacked very quickly and easily.
‘Any system connected to the internet is vulnerable, however, the greater the asset, the greater the motivation, effort and hence likelihood of data being stolen.’
The move comes just months after a similar law was revoked in Kuwait. It required all residents and travellers to submit samples of their DNA.
But geneticists were up in arms over the ‘Orwellian plan’ and warned it was a breach of privacy, comparing it to filming people in toilets.
Whole genome sequencing – which is what is likely to happen in Dubai – allows researchers to read all the little bits of code that makes someone who they are.
The human genome is composed of more than three billion pairs of building-block molecules and grouped into some 25,000 genes.
It contains the codes and instructions that tell the body how to grow and develop, but flaws in the instructions can lead to disease.
The first decoding of a human genome – completed in 2003 as part of the Human Genome Project – took 15 years and cost £2.15 billion ($3bn).
It has since become widespread and led to dozens of projects, such as the 100,000 Genomes Project, launched former Prime Minister David Cameron in 2012.
Writing in The Times earlier this week about how his late son’s diagnosis with a rare neurological disorder devastated his family, Mr Cameron praised the future of genomic testing.
Source Credit: Daily Mail