Charles Poladian

Jan 16th 2018

Precision Medicine and How to Protect Your Genetic Information


Hacking has increasingly been making headlines over the last few years. At the same time, cybersecurity has been in the same story covering large-scale data breaches or website shutdowns. For most people, the threat of hacking involves the stealing of identity, fraud and banking. But, there’s a more personal vulnerability that could develop with the emergence of precision medicine. Instead of stealing a password, cyberthieves could be snooping for your genetic information. Luckily the burgeoning field of genomic security is there to stop would-be criminals.

Your Genes, Your Medicine

Medicine has always been tailored to an individual’s needs. Whether it’s a prescription for an allergy medicine or contact lenses, medicine is personal. Precision medicine takes healthcare to the next level by customizing treatments based on your specific genetic information. All the genes in your body add up to a big book of you. In a specific chapter, there could be a story about your genes that lets your doctor know what type of medicine to administer.

Precision medicine can be used in cancer treatments. Doctors can look for specific genetic mutations that they can then target with chemotherapy or radiation. This type of treatment would lead to fewer side effects, which means a better recovery process.

All of this genetic information can be stored digitally, which opens up treatment to a global scale. You don’t have to fly to a specialist in another state or country; instead they can pull up your genetic information to evaluate any treatment.

However, there is a drawback to this approach. Your genetic information is now genetic data, which means it has to be stored on a server, or the cloud. It’s protected in the same way as other sensitive information, but there are concerns that a data breach could result in a criminal knowing everything about you in the literal sense.

Genomic Security

Privacy is of the utmost importance when it comes to your DNA. Not only is this data personally revealing, it also identifies all the generations of your family from past to present to the future. Interestingly, the first step to protecting this highly sensitive information is space.

Because your genomic identity can be stored in large files, the future of precision medicine requires more hard-drive space. Legacy facilities designed to securely store medical data and records will need to be upgraded to accommodate the more sensitive genetic information. Other hardware and network upgrades, capable of dealing with files as large as 500 GB, will also be needed.

There are ways to create a framework of genomic security based on best practices developed in other areas of cybersecurity. A classification system that helps classify genetic information, thus making it harder for thieves to connect DNA with an individual, would be one layer of security.

Encryption would also need to be a part of the genomic security equation. From the database to the transit stage and any device capable of transmitting or accessing genetic data would need to be encrypted. Secure coding, so that no sensitive information can be found within the source itself, will also be needed to safeguard genetic information. Better auditing, which creates a chain of custody and command, will also be useful to determine any vulnerabilities.

Whereas data retention can be quantified in months, or a few years, genomic data needs to be held for decades or even a century if we’re thinking about a family. Data centers need to be equipped to handle 50 years, or more, of data. That’s a lot of storage and tracking, which means a different type of training is necessary.

The best security methods in the world won’t matter without a good notification system. Early threat detection can help minimize any breach. Most importantly, genomic security needs to be holistic in nature with a goal of securing data for a very long time.

If you want to learn even more about genomic security, check out this white paper to get into the real nitty-gritty of it.