How Technical Jargon Creates Panic

Today’s Drudge Report has this (somewhat frightening) headline: Pentagon Seeks to Store Data in Human DNA...

Clicking on the link takes you to a story at NextGov about how the government is exploring putting massive amounts of data on DNA.

The story links to FedBizOpps (I don’t see a direct announcement linked there) and to a “proposer’s day” PowerPoint in which IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, part of the Director of National Intelligence) “outlined its vision” for what this is. (This is an unclassified briefing.)

Trying to find out what this means, I went to Slide 17 to find an “Overview” of “MIST,” for Molecular Information Storage, that said:
“The program seeks to develop deployable storage technologies that can eventually scale into the exabyte regime and beyond with reduced physical footprint, power and cost requirements relative to conventional storage technologies. MIST seeks to accomplish this by using sequence-controlled polymers as a data storage medium, and by building the necessary devices and information systems to interface with this medium.”
Wanting to know more about this new technology I searched briefly and found a 2013 article in USA Today which clarified that the DNA we're talking about here is synthetic. Not what the headline implied. Helpfully, the article also clarifies that we are not talking about "consider storing information in a living creature, because the error rate would be too high and the storage less secure."

And yet the mind cannot help to wander. Is there the possibility that human DNA could be used to store data? And if so, how might that technology be harnessed, by anyone?

The answer, says tech entrepreneur Nova Spivack, is, yes it can. A review of the various possibilities includes: eyes, teeth, hair, skin, nails, and even the blood. As long-term solutions, most of these methods are not practical. But it is theoretically possible to store memory in "junk DNA regions which presumably are less involved in critical functions of the DNA" (still problematic); under the skin, in a device; and even in a "benign virus" engineered to be harmless to the body.

Now how frightening is that?

Encoding information on DNA, synthetic or human, is just one example of the kind of complex, sensitive, potentially controversial topics that all organizations must face every single day. The challenge is to talk about it directly, without being overly simplistic or overly technical, as proponents of both strategies are essentially trying to avoid having to confront legitimate and serious stakeholder concerns.

We are no longer entering the brave new world of technology, we're fully enveloped within it, and the Internet has empowered people to do a great deal of meaningful research on their own.

Therefore, when you generate a document for public consumption, consider the multiple audiences who may be interested in it.

You may have intended it narrowly, for a technical audience, but sharing it absent a clear and comprehensive explanation, and optimally an FAQ, can also raise alarm bells for the general public.

This article is released into the public domain by its author, Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. Opinions are the author's own. Image by Guillaume Duchenne via Wikipedia (public domain).

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