What if somebody stole your DNA?

“DNA contains not only the instructions to make each and everyone of us, but deeply personal and easily misunderstood or misconstrued clues about who we are.”


Chewing gums, coffee cups, water bottles, cigarette butts, paper tissues…
Have you ever thought about how much of your DNA you are leaving everywhere you go, every single day of your life? Think about it – your biological traces are EVERYWHERE

Genetic fingerprint

Our DNA contains our unique genetic code. All the information about our identity, our ancestry, ranging from characteristics concerning our outer appearance to possible health risks, the color of our eyes, the pigmentation of our skin as well as how we act and feel – all assembled together in a tiny amount of body fluid or skin cells we leave behind every day – by accident or intentionally.  But how much of this huge amount of information can an amateur learn by just collecting a DNA sample on the street? How much of YOU can ANYONE track by simply picking up your rubbish?


3D portraits from Heather Dewey-Hagborg “Stranger Visions” bioart project

Leave her your DNA and she’ll 3D-print your face

Heather Dewey-Hagborg is an information artist who explores the intersection between art and science. In her critically much acclaimed art project she 3D-printed portraits of people by using stray DNA she collected on the streets of her Brooklyn neighborhood. Not being a biotechnologist, she learned to extract and analyze these samples in a three-week crash-course. (Yes, that is actually possible!) Out of the genetic fingerprints that she hence carved out, she created stunning life-sized replicas of their owners’ faces.

Soon the media was all over her work and “completed the piece” by creating a public debate. With her amazing and unique art project Heather Dewey-Hagborg sparked a conversation about an area of surveillance that almost no one had been thinking about: the emerging potential for biological surveillance.

“I wanted people to see how incredibly personal and utterly vulnerable all this information was. That could be me. That could be my DNA.”

Heather Dewey-Hagborg wants people to be aware that biological surveillance could pose the same threat to our privacy as electronic surveillance.

“You wouldn’t leave your medical records on a subway for just anyone to read!”

Did you know that there are 54 countries that have DNA databases and that your name gets entered as soon as you become suspected (!) of doing something wrong? Also, DNA is taken routinely from infants at birth in many countries, including Austria. It is still unclear how long such samples are stored for and what information can exactly be derived from them. Scary, isn’t it? Genetic privacy laws as well as Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s art project actually occupy a very “fuzzy legal zone”. Imagine what companies (or basically anyone) could come up with, if they just collected this forensic material?

But Heather Dewey-Hagborg does not only want people to engage in dialogue about biological surveillance, she might also introduce a product that gives you the choice to leave or erase your DNA from public places.

It was an honor to have the brilliant Heather Dewey-Hagborg give a talk at the 2014 TEDxVienna conference “Brave New Space”. Get inspired (and maybe also a little scared) by her TEDxVienna talk “I steal DNA from strangers”:



Header: Photo credit: snre via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

Inserted: Heather Dewey-Hagborg

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About Elli Kling

Elli loves nothing more than travelling the world & getting to know other cultures. She likes reading, cooking and is obsessed with japanese green tea. She has a background in communications, enjoys writing and is also part of the TEDx Communications & PR Team.

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