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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

2 hours ago - World

Maximum pressure campaign escalates with Fakhrizadeh killing

Photo: Fars News Agency via AP

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, is a new height in the maximum pressure campaign led by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government against Iran.

Why it matters: It exceeds the capture of the Iranian nuclear archives by the Mossad, and the sabotage in the advanced centrifuge facility in Natanz.

Scoop: Biden weighs retired General Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief

Lloyd Austin testifying before Congress in 2015. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Why it matters: A nominee for Pentagon chief was noticeably absent when the president-elect rolled out his national security team Tuesday. Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden's comfort level — have come into play.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: WHO: AstraZeneca vaccine must be evaluated on "more than a press release."
  2. Politics: Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York COVID restrictions.
  3. World: Thailand, Philippines sign deal with AstraZeneca for vaccine.
  4. Economy: Safety nets to disappear in December Black Friday shopping across the U.S., in photosAmazon hires 1,400 workers a day throughout pandemic.
  5. Education: National standardized tests delayed until 2022.