Google accused of bio-piracy

Google accused of bio-piracy

Summary: First it was China, now it's genetics; Google is in hot water with privacy advocates again

TOPICS: Government UK

Search giant Google has been accused of being the "biggest threat to genetic privacy" for its alleged plan to create a searchable database of genetic information.

Google was presented with an award as part of the Captain Hook Awards for Biopiracy in Curitiba, Brazil, this week. The organisers allege that Google's collaboration with genomic research institute J. Craig Venter, to create a searchable online database of all the genes on the planet, is a clear example of biopiracy.

Biopiracy refers to the "monopolisation of genetic resources" according to the show's organisers. It is also defined as the unauthorised use of biological resources by organisations such as corporations, universities and governments.

According to the award's Web site, Google is guilty of biopiracy because plans for a searchable database could make it easier for private genetic information to be abused. "Google, in cooperation with Craig Venter, are developing plans to make all of our genomes Googlable to facilitate the brave new world of private genetically-tailored medicines," the site claims.

Jim Thomas, from ETC Group, which is one of the organisers behind the awards ceremony, said that Google's recent moves around storing consumer information could land it in hot water with privacy campaigners of all kinds. "The new 'we want to store everyone's information online' mission statement is going to get very controversial if they extend that to genomic information. If Google thinks online privacy is a big can of worms wait until they realise what they've opened up with the whole genetic privacy debate," he said.

The original source for the alleged collaboration between Google and Venter is The Google Story by Pulitzer Prize winner David Vise. However Google has previously refused to comment on the issue and Venter has denied any ongoing relationship. Google did not respond in time for this story.

The search giant is keen to show that it committed to contributing to areas outside of technology. Google recently appointed Dr Larry Brilliant as executive director of to work with the company's co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to manage Google's charitable donations and philanthropic strategies.

Dr Brilliant is a physician, epidemiologist and a specialist in international health. He played a key role in the World Health Organisation campaign to eradicate smallpox and has also worked for the UN in the fields of blindness and polio eradication.

Topic: Government UK

Andrew Donoghue

About Andrew Donoghue

"If I'd written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people - including me - would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism."

Hunter S. Thompson

Andrew Donoghue is a freelance technology and business journalist with over ten years on leading titles such as Computing, SC Magazine, BusinessGreen and

Specialising in sustainable IT and technology in the developing world, he has reported and volunteered on African aid projects, as well as working with charitable organisations such as the UN Foundation and Computer Aid.

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  • Whether or not genomic information is available for free or not is not the point - the important point is facilitating access to highly personal information without consent.

    when you download a document from the internet (via google) you have the implied consent of the person who posted it to that public space that it is now for common use - this is enough because this is only data and nothing much more - it is not as personal as genomic information.

    By contrast when you access somebody's genomic data you need to have explicit consent because this is something very personal that has an important bearing on their identity, health, personhood etc.

    If google makes all personal genomic data available to anyone to use as they will it is also making that available to profit making enterprises to profit by and its not clear how they could put in place an adequate consent mechanism to do this. This data is not googles to redistribute (it shouldn't even be craig venters...)

    Its also misleading to think that this data is going to be freely and equally available to everyone in common - only certain specialized knowledge enterprises have the ability rto make use of such data and by and large they are private, for profit and won't redistribute a penny back to the people whose genomic information they are using.

    Genomic information is not like software code and its wrong to compare them - it belongs very personally to individuals - when you use that information without explicit consent there is a victim.
  • I don't see how this can be a bad thing. Its not like they are going to list your name and your genetic makeup. People are not going to be able to Google you name and clone you. This is another example about people freaking out about anything that mentions genectics. I think they trying to open up genetic research to help be and share information, unlike companies you try and patent every gene they identify. What would you rather have, a private company holding all of the genetic information, stifiling research,, or an open database that allows anyone to do research.
  • I agree with Jeremy.

    Pharmaceutical giants hoard this kind of info because it's like gold to them. They are the real pirates...steal information from public universities and then bury it in patents. What google is doing is anti-piracy...take the info and make it available to eveyone. Knowledge is power...and if it's access is limited, it's power is concentrated with the keepers and everyone else is at the mercy of their judgement. It's like open source vs. microsoft. If anyone can veiw the code it's easier to catch the funny business. When Microsoft sends you updates do you really know whats in there? The more checkers the safer we all are...especially when it comes to genetics. If someone gives you a new food, don't you want to know what's in it! If scientists know what other scientists are doing it's easier to find out who's playing Jekyl and Hyde (based on the guy how discovered the anetshetic use of ether, too much personal use and went crazy...just a factioid)

    Aside from all of this maybe these Brazilians just have bad english because piracy as a definition doesn't even fit this scenario. Maybe I should look that up in portugese.
  • I toally agree with above statements. We see this kind of greedy atempts all the time and in sectors of all kinds, trying with all their might and claws not to lose their enormously fat pay cow. Who are they trying to convince? It's all about the money, and nothing will convince me it isn't. And using propaganda of fear is of course the best way to play it, because people will be afraid of ANYTHING as long as a scientist or doctor or some major face/company backs it up.
    No, I hope this is not only a rumor and that google realy IS considering to create a searchable online database of all the genes on the planet. That would benefit progress in biological research the most. We'd probably have solutions for all kinds of deceases by now. Go Google, go Google!
  • yeah...what is the issue here? if it isn't tied to individuals, where is the privacy concern? doesn't sound like GATTACA is here just yet...
  • The biopiracy accusation against Google is ill-informed, but still serves to stimulate a necessary discussion.

    The original article about the Google genome project referred to the individuals being analyzed and published as having consented.

    The 100,000's and soon millions of people with the skills - bioinformaticists - to utilize this data are actually in non-profit, public and private universities, research institutes and medical clinics.

    In fact, there are over 1000 public genetic and protein databases already in existence with varying quality and focus. One of the main bioinformatics tasks that goes on in Big Pharma is integrating these constantly proliferating public databases.

    The private database businesses of Celera, Incyte and Human Genome Sciences were initially quite successful, but with the proliferation of public databases, the for-profit business model of selling access to genome databases was seriously undermined as a big business, although it will come back in new forms.

    The SNP and Gene and Protein Expression software which is the key mechanism for mining this data is dropping in price consistently; and they currently run less than $1,000 for non-profits.

    Genetic Anonymity, however, can not be guaranteed long term.

    The cost for acquiring genetic data from an original source is dropping at a rate of 100X per decade.
    Whole Genome DNA Sequencing of a human is expected to drop to $7,000 within the next 2 years via any one of three new technology companies - Solexa, 454 Biosciences, Helicos.

    NASA even has a contest in place to drive forward the $1,000 genome of new species by 2015.

    To know 100,000 genetic variation points for any individual already costs much less than $1000. It will drop to $10 - $100 by 2010.

    Therefore, the GATTACA scenario where someone gets a hair or flaked off skin from someone that they know, analyzes the DNA and searches the databases for pattern matches could easily be here within 10 years.

    The solution is to set up legal safeguards for the consequences of this knowledge beng public on healthcare insurance coverage, employment, citizenship, marriage, organ transplant, paternity, prefertilization and prenatal screening, adoption and many other spheres.

    Genetic information, by the planeload, of varying degrees of quality, will become available worldwide eventually.

    Don't Panic! Let's make sure the knowledge and skills are democratically distributed and our rights protected.
  • What I am most worried about is that this makes it easier for bio-terrorists, creating virus and things like that. Or does it? I am not an expert..