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Jun. 1 2010 - 11:40 am | 233 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

UC Berkeley to freshman: Bring your books, toothbrush, and a DNA swab?

Campus of the UC Berkeley in Berkeley, Califor...

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Kids who enter college this year are already being bombarded with messages about their privacy, particularly with worries that they surrender certain personal information every time they post a Facebook status update or announce something via Twitter.

Though a UC Berkeley study somewhat debunked all the frantic musings about young people’s online privacy by revealing that they are indeed vigilant about their electronic information, and that “88 percent of the 18- to 24-year-olds it surveyed last July said there should be a law that requires Web sites to delete stored information. And 62 percent said they wanted a law that gave people the right to know everything a Web site knows about them,” according to the New York Times.

But the same school that determined young people are making efforts to protect their privacy online is now asking some of its incoming students to surrender a much more tangible form of privacy: their own DNA. A new program at the school involves asking new students and transfers to return to DNA swab so that the school can provide each participant with personalized information about their dietary needs, including lactose, folic acid and alcohol. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Only the participants will be able to learn about their own results, the project promises. Then the samples will be destroyed. Dubbed “Bring Your Genes to Cal,” the program is part of UC Berkeley’s annual “On the Same Page” program, in which incoming students, like those at many colleges, typically are asked to read the same book over the summer and discuss them in fall seminars.

Is it just me, or is it a relatively big leap from students to all reading the same book together – a pretty standard practice throughout academia – to students providing information about their genetic makeup to professors and scientists?

Though the school insists the program is voluntary and that the results will be used only for the stated purposes and destroyed afterward, many people are concerned that some degree of coercion is taking place because students might worry about offending prospective professors or advisers by electing not to swab up. Others have pointed out that the name of the program, “on the Same Page,” could risk making students feel alienated from those who do participate.

It’s an awfully mixed message to send to young adults that they need to be protective of their private data in the virtual world, then ask them to hand over genetic material when they enter an institute of higher learning. Perhaps untethering the program from entering the university would make it less pressure-filled and more truly voluntary.


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    I'm a Los Angeles-based writer and editor focusing on pop and politics, race and culture, and where Gen-Yers fit into it all. My writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, WashingtonPost.com, the San Francisco Chronicle and People magazine. Among other things, I'm Oregon-born, hip-hop-addicted, and weirdly optimistic that the journalism business will stay alive.

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