Is The Future Of Marketing In Genetics?

At risk of sounding like a total nutjob, I want to explore some interesting technologies that are developing that could one day have an impact on how marketers target their audiences, and how consumer...
Is The Future Of Marketing In Genetics?
Written by Chris Crum
  • At risk of sounding like a total nutjob, I want to explore some interesting technologies that are developing that could one day have an impact on how marketers target their audiences, and how consumers are fed information by those who want to get their messages to us.

    As a consumer, what technologies with marketing potential are you most excited or worried about? How about as a marketer? Share your thoughts in the comments.

    MIT researchers have put out a paper, discussed in Science Magazine, looking at people who have volunteered to donate their personal genome sequence data, and how this data can be found using publicly available information. io9’s Robert Gonzalez talks about the study, saying that the days of “genomic anonymity” are over. Gonzalez spoke with lead researcher Yaniv Erlich:

    “We are living in a brave new world,” Erlich tells io9, “a world where more information than ever is readily available online.” What happens to this information depends on who’s making use of it. In the hands of a scientist, it can be used to study, treat and cure diseases. In the hands of Facebook, it can be used to create powerful new search engines. In the hands of a criminal, it can be used to commit identity theft.

    “Basically, we show that you can take whole genome sequencing data that is posted online and cross-reference it with public genealogy data to infer the identity of [an ostensibly anonymous] donor.” And you can do it with Google searches.

    “The combination of surname, age and state is a very strong identifier,” Erlich tells io9. “It’s rare that you find more than a dozen with the same combination, and all three are very searchable online.”

    The report is called Identifying Personal Genomes by Surname Inference. The abstract is as follows:

    Sharing sequencing data sets without identifiers has become a common practice in genomics. Here, we report that surnames can be recovered from personal genomes by profiling short tandem repeats on the Y chromosome (Y-STRs) and querying recreational genetic genealogy databases. We show that a combination of a surname with other types of metadata, such as age and state, can be used to triangulate the identity of the target. A key feature of this technique is that it entirely relies on free, publicly accessible Internet resources. We quantitatively analyze the probability of identification for U.S. males. We further demonstrate the feasibility of this technique by tracing back with high probability the identities of multiple participants in public sequencing projects.

    If you want to get into the technical stuff, take a look at the report itself. It’s free to read with a registration.

    Gonzalez takes the angle, “Your Biggest Genetic Secrets Can Now Be Hacked, Stolen, and Used for Targeted Marketing”. Also worth a read. Essentially, the researchers were able to identify anonymous DNA donors and members of their family, using the method described in both reports. Erlich basically tells io9 research like this is designed to bring about a public discussion about what’s possible, what people’s rights are, and about what kinds of policies and legislation should accompany all of this. Gonzalez quotes Erlich specifically on the marketing angle:

    Imagine receiving an email that says “you have very desirable traits, would you like to be a sperm donor?” or “You are a rare blood type, please consider donating blood.” Do we want to restrict that kind of communication with people?

    What about companies that purchase other companies’ databases? Let’s say I participated in some genetic testing with one company and then another company purchases it. What are my rights?

    So, that’s some pretty interesting stuff. Now, think about some of the big players in enabling marketing. The article already mentioned Facebook and Google, but consider how much we’re already sharing.

    I don’t want to make any suggestions about the possibilities of companies like Google or Facebook using genomes to serve us ads, but think about how much these companies already know about us from the products we use every day. Think about that and combine it with what these researchers are talking about, and you have to wonder where we’re going in the (perhaps not too distant) future.

    Google has reportedly even worked with Craig Venter, one of the first to sequence the human genome, in the past, on cataloging genes. Here’s an excerpt from the David A. Vise and Mark Malseed book The Google Story, which was picked up by The Washington Post, and then the Bioinformatics Organization:

    “We need to use the largest computers in the world,’ Venter said. ‘Larry and Sergey have been excited about our work and about giving us access to their computers and their algorithm guys and scientists to improve the process of analyzing data. It shows the broadness of their thinking. Genetic information is going to be the leading edge of information that is going to change the world. Working with Google, we are trying to generate a gene catalogue to characterize all the genes on the planet and understand their evolutionary development. Geneticists have wanted to do this for generations.’

    “Over time, Venter said, Google will build up a genetic database, analyze it, and find meaningful correlations for individuals and populations. It is utilizing the 30,000 genes discovered by Venter and scientists from the National Institutes of Health when they were racing to beat one another to map the human genome. On June 26, 2000, federal researchers and those from the private sector came together at the White House to announce that their race to map the human genome had ended in a tie. Shortly thereafter, Venter and scientists from NIH made the genetic information they had gathered publicly available on the Internet, a stark contrast to the days when scientists hoarded data. Google went on to post a double helix doodle on its Web site to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA, the material inside cells that carries genetic information.

    “Google’s data-mining techniques appear well-suited to the formidable challenges posed by analyzing the genetic sequence. It has begun work on this project, but has not been required to disclose any information about it publicly since the work has no impact on its current revenue and profits.”

    One can’t help but wonder in the back of their mind if that last statement (from a book released 8 years ago) really still holds true.

    Again, to be clear, I’m not trying to suggest anything here, but like Erlich says, it’s about having a discussion.

    I’d like to return to that point from the io9 article about Facebook (“…’a world where more information than ever is readily available online…’ What happens to this information depends on who’s making use of it…In the hands of Facebook, it can be used to create powerful new search engines…”).

    Genetic information aside, Facebook does have tons and tons of data about over a billion people. That alone, makes the potential of its new Graph Search a very big deal. Facebook is giving us a way to search data that Google simply can’t give us.

    Now, rewind to 2010, about a year before Google launched Google+. Consider some words by then Google CEO (now Executive Chairman) Eric Schmidt:

    “The best thing that would happen is for Facebook to open up its data. Failing that, there are other ways to get that information.”

    The company, of course went on to launch Google+, which many of us ultimately assumed was what Schmidt meant by this, and perhaps it was. Still, though it has grown significantly since launch, it’s hard to imagine Google+ really being able to grab the kind of social networking market share Facebook has amassed. Social is important, but in the end, as I’ve discussed in numerous other articles, it really comes down to identity, and even if this genetic stuff doesn’t have any bearing whatsoever on Google’s plans, Google is already getting very up close and personal with us in ways that aren’t always social anyway.

    Consider Google Now, which might even be coming to Chrome, in addition to Android where it currently resides. Consider Google Glass, which will be coming to market before long, with plenty of use cases realized by app developers, along with voice commands, head gestures and phone calls. Consider this instant upload video feature Google co-founder Sergey Brin recently showed off, which pretty much equates to Google seeing the world through your eyes. Consider the targeting of ads Google is already able to do in search, and in Gmail, based on the content of your emails (which is quite social itself, by the way). Consider Ingress, Google’s augmented reality game (which should work nicely with Google Glass), which Google is said to be harvesting all kinds of personal location-based data from. PandoDaily called it a “potential data exploitation disaster“. Consider that it’s the very early days for most of these things.

    Everyone (including myself) has been talking about what Facebook Graph Search means for Google this week, and it will certainly be interesting to watch how things develop. Facebook even indicated it would “love” to work with Google before Google CEO Larry Page said in an interview that Facebook is “doing a really bad job on their products”. I’ve always said that Google really needed Facebook data to make a complete search experience, and I still believe that, but I’m not so sure Google needs Facebook at all when it comes to data that it can ultimately use to monetize us users. Obviously, they’re getting by pretty well so far, and some of this stuff on the horizon may just be able to push Google even further.

    Despite all the social data Facebook has about us, Google has data about us all over the board, and the future (along with Google’s recently revamped privacy policy that allows it to smoothly use that data from product to product) looks like it will be getting more up close and personal than ever.

    Oh, by the way, did I mention that engineers are already working on Google Glass-like contact lenses, and that one of the Google Glass engineers has spoken extensively on Google Glass-like technology being implemented in contact lens form?

    Do you like where all of this is headed? What are your thoughts about genomic privacy? How about the general up close and personal technology that is emerging? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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