Feb 25, 2019

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1 big thing: Ancestry firms share your DNA data more than you think

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Genetic testing companies that trace customers' ancestry are amassing huge databases of DNA information, and some are sharing access with law enforcement, drugmakers and app developers, Axios' Kim Hart reports.

Why it matters: At-home DNA testing kits are soaring in popularity, but many consumers who took the tests to learn more about their family trees may not realize how that data is being shared for other purposes.

The big picture: What started out as a novelty for genealogists has gone mainstream. There are now more than 50 DNA-testing kit services on the market, estimates Carson Martinez, a health policy fellow at the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF).

  • MIT Technology Review predicts more than 100 million people may be part of commercial genetic databases within the next 2 years.
  • Amid controversies over internet companies' collection of personal data, millions are paying to hand over DNA samples to a largely unregulated industry.
  • Some worry law enforcement, employers or insurance companies could end up using that DNA information against them.

Driving the news: This month FamilyTreeDNA came under fire for voluntarily giving the FBI routine access to its database of more than 1 million users' data, allowing agents to test DNA samples from crime scenes against customers' genetic information to look for family matches.

  • FamilyTreeDNA apologized for not disclosing the agreement to consumers. The company told the NYT that users can disable the "matching" option to prevent their data from being visible.
  • Ancestry.com and 23andMe say they require a warrant or subpoena before they consider turning over data to law enforcement.
  • It's not the first time genetic data has been used in cold cases. To catch the Golden State Killer last year, police detectives compared crime scene DNA against publicly available genetic data to identify the suspect.

Drugmakers also want access. Ancestry.com and 23andMe — the largest companies that have DNA data of 15 million users combined — both share anonymized genetic data with pharmaceutical companies.

Reality check: Commercial DNA-testing services aren't specifically covered by federal privacy rules, such as HIPAA, because they aren't health providers or insurers.

The DNA services have grown popular without most consumers realizing that their data could be used for purposes other than genealogy, such as forensics, said Benjamin Berkman, a bioethicist at the National Institutes of Health, who wrote about ethical issues of using genealogy data to solve crimes in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The bottom line: Read the fine print before uploading your genetic data, Berkman said, and use care when interpreting the results.

Go deeper:

2. Consumers kinda, sorta care about their data

A full 81% of consumers say that in the past year they've become more concerned with how companies are using their data, and 87% say they've come to believe companies that manage personal data should be more regulated, according to a survey out Monday by IBM's Institute for Business Value.

Yes, but: They aren't totally convinced they should care about how their data is being used, and many aren't taking meaningful action after privacy breaches, according to the survey, Kim reports. Despite increasing data risks, 71% say it's worth sacrificing privacy given the benefits of technology.

By the numbers:

  • 89% say technology companies need to be more transparent about their products.
  • 75% say that in the past year they've become less likely to trust companies with their personal data.
  • 88% say the emergence of technologies like AI increase the need for clear policies about the use of personal data.

The other side: Fewer than half (45%) report that they've updated privacy settings, and only 16% stopped doing business with an entity due to data misuse.

Be smart: There's a surprisingly large group of consumers globally who are clueless about the risks to their data: 3 out of 10 people polled say they're unaware of data breaches that have occurred. But awareness grows with every massive privacy incident, and so does pressure on businesses to button up their data policies.

3. MWC shows the latest unobtainable products

Photo: Microsoft

The big cellphone industry trade show called Mobile World Congress officially begins today, but most of the big product introductions have already taken place.

What's new:

  • Microsoft: The product getting the most attention wasn't even a cellphone. On Sunday, Microsoft introduced the second version of its HoloLens mixed reality headset. The new version addresses a number of criticisms of the original, offering a wider field of view and more comfortable design, along with a new ARM processor. However, at $3,500, it's aimed at businesses and not consumers.
  • Huawei: Less pricey — but only slightly — is Huawei's $2,600 foldable phone, the Mate X. That's more than the base price of Samsung's rival Galaxy Fold, but the Mate X is a 5G phone and Samsung hasn't said how much the 5G version of the Fold will cost. It's due out this year, but since it's a Huawei product, most people in the U.S. will never see it.
  • LG: A new version of its flagship phone, the LG G8 ThinQ, was introduced that can be controlled via hand gestures and can authenticate users by scanning their palms. LG also showed a 5G phone destined for Sprint and Verizon.
  • Samsung: Of course, it didn't wait for the conference in Barcelona. Samsung introduced the Fold and 4 versions of the Galaxy S10 at a press conference in San Francisco last week.

The bottom line: The big things this year are products you either can't afford or ones you can't quite get yet, like 5G. In some cases, they're both.

4. Airbnb adjusts to tighter SF rules

Airbnb signage on display at WIRED25 Work: Inside San Francisco's Most Innovative Workplaces. Photo: Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for WIRED25

A year after begrudgingly integrating its host sign-up process with San Francisco’s city registration system for short-term rentals and removing unregistered hosts, Airbnb says that home listings in the city have grown 22% to more than 7,800, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

Why it matters: Historically, Airbnb has fought against regulations, especially those that could make it harder for new hosts to join its service and get in the way of its business growth.

  • “We had the mindset that we are a platform and cities should figure it out,” Airbnb global policy chief Chris Lehane tells Axios.

The bottom line: Airbnb is steadily growing, hitting the numbers it had before its big compliance integration a year ago.

Yes, but: Airbnb is still not done battling cities. Last week, New York City issued a subpoena for data from the company to make sure hosts aren’t breaking the law, a move that came weeks after a judge halted a city law that would crack down on short-term rentals.

Go deeper: Kia has more here.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Mobile World Congress, now dubbed MWC Barcelona, runs through this week (see story above).

Trading Places

  • Joseph Okpaku, Lyft’s VP of government relations, is leaving the company, per The Information.
  • Twitter co-founder Ev Williams is stepping down from its board of directors.


6. After you Login

This Canadian dad and coach miked up his kid at hockey practice to get a better sense of what he was experiencing. The results were hilarious and adorable.