Berkeley is asking students to volunteer their DNA for testing.

New freshmen will be given cotton swabs with which to dab their cheeks. They’ll be collected and anonymously analyzed, showing the students’ ability to tolerate alcohol, absorb folic acid and metabolize lactose, according to USA Today. Students can log in to a Web site to check their results, using an anonymous bar code that comes with the cotton swabs.

To what end is this data being collected?

the goal is not to identify potentially dangerous genes, but to point out traits that can be managed through behavior, USA Today reports. The university will host a Web site with related genetics reading material, and students will be able to attend lectures and special panel discussions about ethics in genomics.

Stephen Greenhut in the Orange County Register presents the set of critiques levied against the program in recent days.

Critics worry that the project is subtly coercive; want to know whether the private foundation funding the experiment has a vested interest in the expansion of DNA testing; and suggest that Berkeley could be violating the law by operating a clinical laboratory without a license.

I’m probably supposed to feel all squeamish that a large public university wants to collect reams of data on unsuspecting 18 year olds. The truth is these same 18 year-olds (along with their parents) submit personal data to hosts of companies that track their web browsing habits via tracking applications and cookies. The Wall Street Journal ran a fantastic piece on how the top Websites track and sell your browsing habits.

Tracking technology is getting smarter and more intrusive. Monitoring used to be limited mainly to “cookie” files that record websites people visit. But the Journal found new tools that scan in real time what people are doing on a Web page, then instantly assess location, income, shopping interests and even medical conditions. Some tools surreptitiously re-spawn themselves even after users try to delete them.

The WSJ report found that the top 50 websites install an average of 64 tracking applications on a veiwer’s computer. I’m less concerned with a public university voluntarily asking me for a DNA sample to provide me with greater insight into my predisposition for lactose intolerance than I am over companies constructing a “consumer proflile” of me via surreptitiously installing cookies on my computer.

But why aren’t folks up in arms about this, much more common practice? I suspect because one is being done under the aegis of a “”public” institution (a university) while the other is done through a set of “private” entities? What makes it any less of an intrusion if a company, rather than a public university, gathers information about me?

via Popular Science