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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Over the past two years, the U.S. government has tried to rein in how major tech companies use the personal data they've gathered on their customers. At the same time, government agencies are themselves seeking to harness those troves of data.

Why it matters: Tech platforms use personal information to target ads, whereas the government can use it to prevent and solve crimes, deliver benefits to citizens — or (illegally) target political dissent.

Driving the news: A new report from the Wall Street Journal details the ways in which family DNA testing sites like FamilyTreeDNA are pressured by the FBI to hand over customer data to help solve criminal cases using DNA.

  • The trend has privacy experts worried about the potential implications of the government having access to large pools of genetic data, even though many people whose data is included never agreed to its use for that purpose.

The FBI has particular interest in data from genetic and social media sites, because it could help solve crimes and protect the public.

  • For example, the FBI is "soliciting proposals from outside vendors for a contract to pull vast quantities of public data" from Facebook, Twitter Inc. and other social media companies,“ the Wall Street Journal reports.
  • The request is meant to help the agency surveil social behavior to "mitigate multifaceted threats, while ensuring all privacy and civil liberties compliance requirements are met."
  • Meanwhile, the Trump administration has also urged social media platforms to cooperate with the government in efforts to flag individual users as potential mass shooters.

Other agencies have their eyes on big data troves as well.

  • Earlier this year, settlement talks between Facebook and the Department of Housing and Urban Development broke down over an advertising discrimination lawsuit when, according to a Facebook spokesperson, HUD "insisted on access to sensitive information — like user data — without adequate safeguards."
  • HUD presumably wanted access to the data to ensure advertising discrimination wasn't occurring on the platform, but it's unclear whether the agency needed user data to be able to support that investigation.

Investigations of specific crimes are the most common situations that pit the government's law enforcement needs against tech companies' privacy rules.

  • Two years ago, the government and Apple fought to a standstill over encryption following the San Bernardino shooting.
  • Apple denied the FBI's request to help investigators gain access to the shooter's cellphone. Apple took the battle to court, but the conflict fizzled after the FBI figured out a way to access the phone on its own.

Experience demonstrates that gathering stockpiles of data holds a magnetic attraction for government.

  • In the post 9/11 era, the National Security Agency began a long and controversial program, widely seen as extra-legal, to broadly monitor phone and other telecommunications messages.

Be smart: History shows that when governments acquire vast stocks of personal data on their citizens, it's very tempting for them to use that information for political purposes or personal vendettas.

The big picture: Privacy experts fear that we're going to keep making mistakes and improvising through crises since we haven't had a broad debate over setting boundaries around government access to personal data collected by tech companies.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to accurately characterize the details of Apple's dispute with the FBI over the San Bernardino shooter's phone.

Go deeper

Senate retirements could attract GOP troublemakers

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sen. Roy Blunt's retirement highlights the twin challenge facing Senate Republicans: finding good replacement candidates and avoiding a pathway for potential troublemakers to join their ranks.

Why it matters: While the midterm elections are supposed to be a boon to the party out of power, the recent run of retirements — which may not be over — is upending that assumption for the GOP in 2022.

Congressional diversity growing - slowly

Data: Brookings Institution and Pew Research Center; Note: No data on Native Americans in Congress before the 107th Congress; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

The number of non-white senators and House members in the 535-seat Congress has been growing steadily in the past several decades — but representation largely lags behind the overall U.S. population.

Why it matters: Non-whites find it harder to break into the power system because of structural barriers such as the need to quit a job to campaign full time for office, as Axios reported in its latest Hard Truths Deep Dive.

Staff for retiring Senate Republicans a K Street prize

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The retirements of high-profile Senate Republicans mean a lot of experienced staffers will soon be seeking new jobs, and Washington lobbying and public affairs firms are eyeing a potential glut of top-notch talent.

Why it matters: Roy Blunt is the fifth Republican dealmaker in the Senate to announce his retirement next year. Staffers left behind who can navigate the upper chamber of Congress will be gold for the city’s influence industry.