Gene theft

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In bioethics and law, gene theft or DNA theft is the act of acquiring the genetic material of another human being without his or her permission, often from a public place. The DNA may be harvested from a wide variety of common objects such as discarded cigarettes, used coffee cups, and hairbrushes. This genetic material can then be used for purposes such as establishing paternity, proving genealogical connections or even unmasking private medical conditions.[1]

Criminal law[edit]

Great Britain criminalized the acquisition of DNA without consent in 2006 at the urging of the Human Genetics Commission.[2][3] Australia's legislature debated a two-year jail sentence for such theft in 2008.[4][5]

In the United States, eight states currently have criminal or civil prohibitions on such nonconsensual appropriation of genetic materials.[6] In Alaska, Florida, New Jersey, New York and Oregon, individuals caught swiping DNA face fines or short jail sentences.[7] Lawsuits against "gene snatchers" are permitted in Minnesota, New Hampshire and New Mexico.[7] In jurisdictions where such nonconsentual taking of DNA is illegal, exceptions are generally made for law enforcement.


Many bioethicists believe that such conduct is an unethical invasion of human privacy.[7] Professor Jacob Appel has warned that criminals may acquire the capability to copy DNA of innocent people and deposit it at crimes scenes, endangering the blameless and undermining a key tool of forensic investigation."[7] However, others defend the appropriation of genetic material on the grounds that doing so may further human knowledge in productive ways[1] One particularly controversial case which received widespread attention in the media was that of Derrell Teat, a wastewater coordinator, who sought to acquire without consent the DNA of a man who was allegedly the last male descendant of her great-great-great grandfather’s brother.[1][8] Another prominent case was a United States paternity suit involving film producer Steve Bing and billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Harmon, Amy. Stalking Strangers’ DNA to Fill in the Family Tree. The New York Times April 2, 2007
  2. ^ Womack, Sarah. Report urges ban on secret DNA tests, The Daily Telegraph, May 22, 2002
  3. ^ Editorial: The Human Tissue Act, British Medical Journal, Sept 9, 2006.
  4. ^ Australia considers DNA theft laws United Press International, Nov 10, 2008
  5. ^ Smith, Deborah. Theft of DNA should be a crime: Experts, Sydney Morning Herald, May 30, 2003
  6. ^ Appel, Jacob M. 'Gene-nappers,’ like identity thieves, new threat of digital age, The New Haven Register, Nov. 5, 2009
  7. ^ a b c d Appel, Jacob M. 'Gene-nappers,’ like identity thieves, new threat of digital age, The New Haven Register, Nov. 5, 2009
  8. ^ San Francisco Chronicle, April 8, 2007
  9. ^ Coghlan, Andy. DNA theft should "be a criminal offence", May 21, 2002