Future Tense

Future Tense Newsletter: Sorry, You Probably Can’t Keep Your Genetic Data Private

Lab tecnicians demonstrating DNA testing.

When police took advantage of a public genealogical DNA database to help crack the decades-old case of the Golden State Killer last week, it gave many of us pause about what genetic testing companies might do if they have our biological data. But even keeping the DNA of you and your relatives out of private services like 23andMe, AncestryDNA, or GEDmatch may not be enough to keep your genetic data private. Thanks to scientific research, there are now hundreds of “genetic back doors” that law enforcement can access—including some we might not even know about. Natalie Ram explains how such searches work and how they can run counter to state laws, medical ethics, and democratic norms.

Speaking of massive databases that pose privacy risks to Americans, Congress recently proposed legislation to create a national tracking system for the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) recipients. Danielle Citron and David A. Super explain why the database, which they say amounts to a de facto “National Data Center of the Poor,” would hurt individuals more than it would help them.

Humans aren’t the only species that find themselves embroiled in legal quandaries about new technologies. A landmark 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision recently dismissed the claim that a monkey could own the copyright to its own selfie. But judges and lawmakers so far haven’t been as rigidly against extending robots some of those same entitlements. Rachel Withers explains how the case is the latest indication that one day we may give AI more rights than animals, and what that says about us humans.

Other things we read this week after changing our Twitter password (change your Twitter password!):

Conspirators: Alan Levinovitz writes about the proliferation of conspiracy-theory “documentaries” on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Close encounters: Like many of us, Spandana Singh was recently on the receiving end of a phishing-scheme attempt. Her quest to report the crooked callers who tried to manipulate her, however, revealed how difficult it is to report cybercrime.

Scorpio rising: Are Scorpios spamming Astrology Reddit? Heather Schwedel investigates the star-crossed feud.

Downsides of downvoting: Facebook’s new experimental feature that allows users to upvote and downvote posts may seem satisfying at first, writes Rachel Withers, but will probably only end up accelerating partisanship on the platform.

Flying high: Uber unveiled the design for its long-rumored flying taxi. But will they really be ready for users to hail by the promised 2023 rollout?

Aloha sunscreen: Hawaii’s lawmakers recently passed legislation that will ban the sale of common sunscreens containing chemicals known to kill coral reefs. Rachel Withers argues that it’s time for sunscreen producers to step up both on the islands and around the world.


What will it take to combat misinformation and disinformation in the digital age? Join Future Tense, New America’s Education Policy Program, New America’s Open Technology Institute, and the First Amendment Coalition tomorrow in Washington, D.C., for a wide-ranging conversation about the stakes and solutions. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Still not over Grusk,
Tonya Riley
For Future Tense

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.