DNA security and privacy is a looming problem that scientists and researchers are only just starting to grapple with. A team at Stanford has now developed a technique that can "cloak" irrelevant genomic information, allowing scientists to access key disease-related mutations without revealing an individual's broader genome sequence.

In a world where everything from dating profiles to medical diagnoses are drawing on DNA data, we're currently just forced to hope that each company with access to our DNA is acting responsibly with out genetic fingerprints. But for many, hope is not enough, and nor should it be. With genomic information becoming increasingly of value, a demand has arisen for a way to secure that data while still being able to enjoy the benefits of DNA analysis.

"Often people who have diseases, or those who know that a particular genetic disease runs in their family, are the most reluctant to share their genomic information because they know it could potentially be used against them in some way," says Gill Bejerano, associate professor of developmental biology, of pediatrics and of computer science. "They are missing out on helping themselves and others by allowing researchers and clinicians to learn from their DNA sequences."

To address such concerns, the Stanford team developed a technique based on a classic cryptographic protocol, known as garbled circuit or Yao's protocol. The individual encrypts their own genome using an algorithm on their smartphone or computer, which translates specific gene variants into a linear set of values that are securely uploaded into the cloud. On the other end of the transaction, the researcher (or any second-party) accesses only the data that is pertinent to their investigation.

"In this way, no person or computer, other than the individuals themselves, has access to the complete set of genetic information," says Bejerano.

The team demonstrated the process by executing several practical demonstrations, including identifying specific gene mutations in patients with rare diseases and comparing a baby's DNA with his parents to target the likely cause of a genetic disease. In all tested instances, at least 97 percent of each subject's unique DNA information was completely hidden from the researchers.

As well as protecting a person's privacy when having their DNA processed for medical reasons, this technique could theoretically be applied to more commercial contexts, such as ancestry genome studies or even the rising field of nutrigenomics.

"There is a general conception that we can only find meaningful differences by surveying the entire genome," says Bejerano. "But these meaningful differences make up only a very tiny proportion of our DNA. There are now amazing tools in computer science and cryptography that allow researchers to pinpoint only these differences while keeping the remainder of the genome completely private."

Just recently it was demonstrated that synthetic DNA could be created containing malware that allows a malicious party to gain control of the computer that sequences it. As we learn more and more about what our genetic fingerprint means, the value of that fingerprint will only increase. In the future, the DNA marketplace will be big business and security protocols such as this new Stanford technique are going to be important.

The team's research was published in the journal Science.