The naked years: the end of privacy

By Razib Khan | November 30, 2010 2:59 am

I do talk periodically on this weblog about the coming ‘transparent society.’ The main reason I bring up the issue is that I think it is probably inevitable, and, I think we’re sliding toward it without even reflecting on it too much. Many people are very surprised at how little time it takes to find information on them in Spokeo and Pipl. Curious about where someone you lost touch with from high school has lived? Go to Intelius.

Rereading David Brin’s original 1996 essay introducing the idea in Wired I’m struck by the fixation on old-fashioned cameras. To me, what people do is almost less interesting than what they’ve done. How much did they buy their house for? Where did they go to university? Did they graduate? Who did they marry? Interestingly, much of this information is offered up freely by the individuals themselves.

And yet what about our genetic code? With the recent 23andMe sale (which continues on, with provisions) I noticed people on Facebook worrying about privacy. Interestingly WikiLeaks has revealed that American diplomats were encouraged to obtain the DNA of foreign notables. Why would they do this? My first thought was that perhaps it would be an easy way to blackmail powerful cuckolds! Though this didn’t seem to cramp Adnan Kashoggi’s style. I assume that powerful individuals don’t have to worry about divulging their disease risks, since they’ll be taken care of. But the reality is that the science is simply not there for a great deal of return when it comes to risk variants. Below is a screenshot of my risks for various diseases from 23andMe as judged from a few single nucleotide variants:


First, these are risks assuming a European genetic background. Which I don’t have. So there’s a problem right there, but 23andMe helpfully notes this boldly if you click through. But setting that aside, I know my risks for Type 2 Diabetes are much greater than average. Why? I have a family history of the disease! That’s why I’m obsessed with visceral fat.

The point is that right now family history is a much better predictor of your risks of a given disease than anything else. Not only does this capture missing heritability, but there is a natural correlation between families and environmental risk factors (or lack thereof). Using the breast cancer risk assessment tool it seems that if you have one first-degree relative who has had the disease you double your own odds of coming down with it over a five year period (though the risks over any given five year period are still low). There has been a lot of warranted attention paid to the BRCA genes, but what about the ability of insurers to digitally analyze the obituaries of your relatives and predict your own probability of death and disease?

I’m not saying that one shouldn’t be worried about divulging one’s genetic data. But it’s only a small piece of the puzzle of what we’re losing.

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  • Adriana

    Razib, great comments. As you rightly point out, family history is still a better indicator of risk. In my family, the “bête noire” is high blood pressure so as I age, I check mine obsessively. We’re still not quite there in terms of genetic risk assessment, and as you mention, ethnic background is important in those calculations. Many GWAS results are valid only within a specific ethnic group. Missing heritability is a huge issue, and of course, it depends on the trait in question. It’s certainly complex stuff. To me, the 23 and me analysis is more for fun than anything else at this point.

  • pconroy

    There are also state maintained online property registrars, that are a mine of information on individuals, like in New York, you have ACRIS

    Most states have something similar.

  • zachK

    Just another reason that genetic risk doesn’t really correlate with actual risk. Genetic data is a bit overrated, IMO.

  • Bill

    So what? Total lack of privacy is normal. The conditions a few of us in the developed world have been living in for the last hundred years are freakish.

  • Razib Khan

    So what? Total lack of privacy is normal. The conditions a few of us in the developed world have been living in for the last hundred years are freakish.

    i agree on the last sentence, but not the first. slavery, marginal subsistence, and infant mortality are normal too in the broad historical sense. so? (of course i agree that these are much more important changes than the emergence of privacy, but the normality of a given condition doesn’t mean it’s not something to be avoided).

  • bioIgnoramus

    Could I protect my privacy by camouflage? I mean – could I deliberately spread all sorts of false and mutually contradictory “facts” about myself so that few people could sieve out the truth?

  • Bill

    You’re shifting the burden of proof. Maybe we’re not talking about the problem because there isn’t one. The benefits of low infant mortality are obvious, while the benefits of privacy are not. The fact that the great and the good smile benignly upon you when you stroke your chin about privacy is not evidence that stroking is warranted.

    The plausible alleged benefit of privacy is greater happiness for deviants. Even if this alleged benefit is real, it is pretty unimpressive. And even this benefit seems unlikely to be real. In the past lack of privacy came packaged with low mobility and starkly limited ability to select associates. Now and in the future it doesn’t.

    The costs of privacy, by contrast, are likely large. Credit reporting agencies, for example, exist for the sole purpose of “violating” privacy, and their benefits are clear and clearly large. In fact, they exist to a considerable extent because privacy exists—they are the replacement for “character loans.” Similar institutions exist for vexatious litigants, insurance fraudsters, and workers’ comp enthusiasts. And this does not even broach the benefits to policing from knowing who the bad guys are. Privacy is antithetical to reputation.

    Another great example is the child protective services racket. There can be no routine public monitoring of cps because of the “privacy rights” of cps “clients.” It’s just an amazing coincidence that the key advocates of this privacy are the social workers whose misbehavior is made so much more difficult to detect.

    “I might get/have unlucky alleles, quelle horreur!!” is totally unconvincing as a boogie man. Work-arounds are trivial. Either have social insurance or buy insurance for your (future) children and insurance for yourself against future discoveries. Only during a brief transition period is there likely to be any sort of difficulty at all.

  • pconroy


    I find the best way to hide your real identity is to have the name of a celebrity. When people search for me by my real name on Google, for instance, they are bombarded by:
    1. 15 pages or so about a certain Virgin Records CEO, who shares my name
    2. 10 pages or so of celebrity photos, by a photographer, who shares my name – so if you’re looking for images of me, all these other pics show up
    3. About 10 other dudes who work in the same industry as I do, but located in US, UK, Australia and NZ, who shares my name
    4. 2 members of Congress/Senate in the US, plus one member of the government in Australia, who shares my name
    5. About 25 other people in the same city who own houses, who shares my name

    So, without other specific information, it’s hard to find exact details on me – due to the popularity of my name.

    On the other hand, my father-in-law has a unique name, and pretty much all Google results refer to him, and him only!

    So to be completely untraceable, change your name to that of a celebrity who lives in the same region of the country that you do, and preferably in the same business.

  • ohwilleke


    Indeed. Early in my law practice, I had a client who was the victim of of fraudulent check scheme that the perpetrators used to steal is car. The perpetrator had fake ID drawn up in the name of “Sandra Brown”. Google it. She was utterly impossible to track down.

  • fbj

    OT: I guess gc is not really surprised by this…

  • bioIgnoramus

    I remember that when I lived in Edinburgh I shared my name with a petty criminal who made regular appearances in the evening paper. My wife points out that nearly all surnames (at least common British surnames) have alternative spellings, so I could use spelling variants as camouflage too. McDonald, MacDonald, Macdonald, MacDonnell…….. Khan’s a bit trickier. But there’s always his German cousins to think of – Kahn. And I’ve seen Cann. And Caan.

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  • pconroy

    How about Khan –> McCann 😉

    Though the best for anonymity would be Mohammed Khan I’m sure.

  • Sandgroper

    Paul, I think you’d agree my name is not bad camouflage, particularly when you consider how common my given name is and all of the alternative spellings of my surname (I’ve counted at least 8 that I have seen which can reliably be assigned to the original place in Normandy, but there could be more). (Only you, Razib and one other who I no longer see among the regular readership here know what it is, BTW.)

    It really ticks me off when I search for myself on Google Scholar to see how many of my publications are available online and I can’t even find myself, until I enter my middle name and a fair bit of personal detail. Then I pop out, but even then I’m not unique, depending on which details I enter. Not that I mind the anonymity in broad terms, it beats the alternative, but professionally it’s better to be known, or known of, and frequently referenced.

  • pconroy


    I agree – you have a fairly common name.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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