Thursday 28 November 2013

23 and Me skepticism

I agree entirely with Alex Tabarrok's post on the ridiculousness of the FDA's shutting-down 23 and Me.

Further, I would love to subscribe to a service like 23 And Me. But I haven't yet.

Let me reframe things just a bit.

We've recently found out that the NSA has basically been able to see everything that Google sees. And Google knows just about everything about me. I have zero worries about Google knowing everything about me - they just use it to better target ads, and I see that as a plus rather than a minus. They might turn ads from a nuisance to offers to sell me things I'd actually value at more than their selling price? Oh Nos! But having that big database of everything just sitting there is way too tempting for government. What they can't subpoena from it, they'll hack their way into and steal. Things that seemed kinda crazy conspiracy theory territory just a couple years ago... well, priors get updated.

23 and Me, run by Anne Wojcicki, Sergei Brin's partner, is putting together a great big database of everybody's DNA. Sure, for now, they've not run the full analysis along all base-pairs, just key markers. But we'll get there as costs drop. Eventually they'll have a great big searchable database of millions of people's DNA. And it will be great, just like Google is great. We'll find out all kinds of associations between genotype and phenotype we'd never otherwise have known about. Rare diseases will get spotted early, lives will be saved. Maybe we'll even get some kind of merger with Google profiles to make it even more accurate. And the ads I get will be even better (again, I see as a plus).

But a database like that is awfully tempting, isn't it? The first temptation will be searches for matches against samples from crime scenes. Even identifying the close kin of criminals can help pin them down. And it will be popular. Because finding and stopping criminals is popular. So warrants asking 23 and Me if they have any matches for particular samples will go down a treat.

Then we'll start seeing 23 and Me elevated risk profiles for criminal activity. Parents will want to know if their kids are at higher risk for antisociality in their teenaged years, so we'll see these start showing up in their profiles.

And my won't those profiles be tempting. And we know that Google's been way less vigilant against designing things to harden against government attacks. Where that's normally irrelevant, it's pretty hard to believe that we'd have that different a culture in a company run by Brin's wife.

The odds of all this turning into pre-crime identification are pretty low. Maybe 5%.* But downside costs seem high.

If a service like 23 and Me started up in China, I'd likely sign up. I cannot imagine the Chinese government giving two whits about the genetic profile of individuals in New Zealand, or their being at all likely to respond positively to subpoenas from America or elsewhere asking to trawl through their databases. And they at least try to keep the NSA out of their stuff.

Transactions costs to New Zealand kept us from signing up to 23 and Me a few years ago. For once, I'm kinda glad about those kinds of costs.

* I suggested a bet with Bryan Caplan on this stuff on Twitter. He reckoned 1% chance; I'd thrown up a 10% ballpark. We've settled on 5%, but need to flesh out the details. I'd expect something like "If, by 2025, mainstream media reports that government agencies are using DNA database profiling to find groups more likely to commit crimes, and uses the information to target social assistance or criminal justice agencies for crime prevention, Bryan owes Eric $20. Otherwise, Eric owes Bryan $1. If the FDA mess effectively closes down 23 and Me (substantial drops in subscriber base), bet's off: it's a conditional bet."

I'd be happy to go to one chance in four that 23 and Me is served a warrant asking them to match crime scene samples against their database by 2025 as well.

1 comment:

  1. I think your bet needs to specify "DNA database profiling using DNA information collected by 23andMe or some similar private service." If the feds collect the data themselves, it doesn't count.