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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

Updated 11 mins ago - World

Myanmar's deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi sentenced to 4 years in prison

An anti-coup protest in Yangon, Myanmar.Photo: Hkun Lat/Getty Images

A Myanmar court sentenced the country's ousted leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on Monday to four years in prison on charges of "inciting public unrest" and breaking COVID-19 protocols, per the New York Times.

Why it matters: It's the first of several verdicts that could result in the 76-year-old Nobel laureate being imprisoned for the rest of her life.

2 hours ago - World

Pope Francis denounces European governments' migrant response

Pope Francis adresses refugees at the Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos on Sunday. Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Pope Francis criticized European countries' response to migrants and asylum seekers during his visit to a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos Sunday.

Why it matters: The pope said "migration is a humanitarian crisis that concerns everyone," but little had changed in the global response to displaced peoples since his first visit to Lesbos five years ago, per a transcript of his remarks. "Human lives, real people, are at stake. ... let us stop this shipwreck of civilization!"

Chris Cuomo accuser: On-air "hypocrisy" spurred report

Journalist Chris Cuomo. Photo: Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images

A woman who accused fired CNN journalist Chris Cuomo of sexual misconduct said Sunday she decided to come forward after learning of his comments about women who made similar accusations about his brother. He denies her allegations.

Why it matters: Her attorney Debra Katz said in a statement that she heard "the hypocrisy" of his on-air words about his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and was "disgusted by his efforts to try to discredit these women," so "retained counsel to report his serious sexual misconduct against her to CNN."