The FDA's Battle With 23andMe Won't Mean Anything in the Long Run
The letter that the FDA sent to 23andMe today, asking the company to stop selling its personal genetic testing kits, shouldn't be that surprising. It is just the next act in a narrative that will have to work itself out over the coming decade.
23andMe’s website says it offers “genetic testing for health, disease & ancestry.” For $99, you can “get to know you” with “reports on 240+ health conditions and traits,” among other things. 23andMe has filed applications with the FDA for portions of its testing, and it has apparently had repeated contact with the FDA. But the agency says that the company is marketing its kit as a medical device and thus requires approval: “[E]ven after … many interactions with 23andMe, we still do not have any assurance that the firm has analytically or clinically validated the [personal genomic service] for its intended uses.” The agency warns that customers could make the wrong medical decisions after receiving a 23andMe report about their genomes.
In response, 23andMe released a statement to TechCrunch saying, “We recognize that we have not met the FDA’s expectations regarding timeline and communication regarding our submission. Our relationship with the FDA is extremely important to us and we are committed to fully engaging with them to address their concerns.”
Survey: People Don't Really Want to Wear Computers on Their Face
Americans want their tech subtle like a Volvo, not conspicuous like a Lamborghini.
A new survey finds that a majority believe “wearable technology” like smart watches and smart clothing will someday be as ubiquitous as smartphones are today. But most would prefer not to wear it on their sleeves—or, worse, their faces.
The survey, by the cloud-services company Citrix, asked 1,000 U.S. adults for their thoughts on wearable technologies. While 60 percent see wearables as an unstoppable trend, 61 percent said they have no plans to purchase a wearable device themselves. And if they do, they don’t want to advertise it to the world. Seventy-three percent said they’d prefer their wearable tech to blend into their everyday clothing rather than serving as a visible advertisement of their tech savvy. (That number is lower among Millennials, but still a majority.)
The generation gap also shows up in people’s responses to a question about what fictional wearable technology they’d prefer. Millennials went for Tony Stark’s full-body armor suit from Iron Man, while their parents would be more comfortable with an unobtrusive Starfleet wrist communicator. As for real-world tech, the survey would seem to be good news for smart-watch purveyors—and smart socks purveyors, for that matter—and a blow to Google Glass.
On the other hand, the 27 percent of adults who do want to wear their devices like a billboard can take heart: They should have no problem standing out from the rest of us.
The Government Might Finally Have to Explain Its “Internet Kill Switch” Policy
A recent legal victory by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, where I work, may soon shed light on a secret policy governing the shutdown of private wireless networks. The protocol, known as Standard Operating Procedure 303 or the Internet “kill switch,” sets out the government’s policy for initiating citywide deactivation of all wireless communications networks. The Department of Homeland Security created the policy in 2006.
We’re all familiar with the role wireless networks play in our lives. They allow us to make phone calls, send text messages, organize political protests, and watch watercolor re-creations of Blade Runner. Because cutting off communications imposes a prior restraint on speech, the First Amendment imposes the strictest of limitations. In particular, after deactivation, the government would have to prove that restrained speech is unprotected and make sure a court promptly reviews the shutdown.
In limited situations, there might be legitimate reasons for shutting down wireless networks. But the potential for abuse is obvious. Repressive governments have repeatedly cut off wireless service to stop protesters from organizing. In the United States, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) deactivated cellphone service in several subway stations in 2011 to prevent a protest over the fatal shooting of Charles Blair Hill by BART police.
Even well-meaning communications shutdowns can have serious, unintended consequences for public safety. In crises, the networks used to send messages the government wants to stop are the same networks used to call 911, text family members, or receive emergency alerts. Not surprisingly, most public interest groups object to policies like SOP 303 that give the government unchecked power to cut off our communications.
How do we know that DHS is following the First Amendment or considering these important interests adequately? We don’t. While the BART has released a short cell service interruption policy, DHS has said nothing about its deactivation policy apart from a single paragraph in an old report.
That may soon change. Earlier this year, EPIC filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act seeking the release of the shutdown policy, and recently, a federal judge ruled that DHS may no longer withhold the details of the policy. The order has been stayed for 60 days to give the agency the chance to appeal, but the ruling is an important development for government accountability and free speech, and gives us the best chance yet of understanding this secret protocol.
MTV's Generation Cryo Asks, "Are You My Father?"
Mystery surrounding a character’s true biological origins is one of the great plot engines of literature. From the wanderings of Oedipus to the cliff-hangers of Dickens, any number of foundlings, orphans, adoptees, and bastards have been propelled through life by ignorance of their parentage, a situation that puts them at the mercy of unknown benefactors, evil workhouse operators, and hostile competitors for inheritance. (Not to mention sex with people they are related to.) The final revelation can result in tragedy—as when Oedipus’ mother, Jocasta, hangs herself upon learning she has married her son—or happy reunion.
When you go looking for self-knowledge, you never know what you are going to get.
Thanks to reproductive technology, we have a new iteration of this ancient drama: The sperm-donor offspring seeking the anonymous donor. This was the premise of The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko’s 2010 film in which two California siblings track down their donor. He emerges as a charismatic but wildly disruptive force, imposing his biological privilege on the meticulously constructed household of an upper-middle-class lesbian couple. Newly discovered kinship—in fiction as in fact—carries a potentially torrential power, throwing settled relationships into disarray, threatening to bring down civilization as we know it, testing which has primacy: the tidy laws and contracts we use to build the families we want, or the primal genetic material we need to achieve them.
The newest iteration of this is an MTV show that debuts on Monday, Nov. 25. Generation Cryo is an engaging docu-series about real-life millennials who are using Internet savvy, Skype-enabled friendships, and social networking to track down their common donor and define family for the 21st century. They are led by Bree, a plucky young woman whose moms conceived her using the standard turkey baster method. Bree, at 17, knows only that her progenitor is Donor 1096, an unknown man who might be described as a kind of modern Genghis Khan. In the little-regulated field that is the U.S. fertility industry, there is no formal limit on the times a donor’s sperm may be sold, and thanks to the SAT scores and athleticism evidenced by his donor profile—not to mention the efficacy of his thawed sperm—1096 has at least 15 offspring.
We know this thanks to the Donor Sibling Registry, an online resource founded by a woman named Wendy Kramer and her son, Ryan, who is donor-conceived. (Wendy Kramer, whose work I admire and whose new book I have blurbed, helped produce the series.) Children and parents can post their donor number and/or clinic information, and make contact with half-siblings and even donors. In some cases, so many have matched that offshoot family websites have been formed. Bree, a typical Gladwellian “connector,” decides not only to get to know her half-sibs but to enlist them in her efforts to unmask 1096.
The result is a quest narrative in which Bree visits half-siblings in Atlanta, Boston, California. They live in a predictable mix of households: single mothers, lesbian partners, heterosexual couples, married and split. (That there are no poor families reminds that this is a commercialized and costly form of family-making.) But in another way this is an outlier group of parents, in that they are open about having used donation—many still are not, especially in families conceiving with egg donation—and willing to give their blessing to the search. The kids may be more conflicted. As they irresistibly compare noses and lower lips—trying to glean who inherited what traits—they demonstrate a rich, confused set of attitudes. Some are as eager to meet 1096 as Bree; some are uncertain; some are disturbed and even repulsed by the prospect. Many worry, deeply, how this will impact their parents.
The most moving encounters in the first two episodes are between sons and the fathers who love and raised them. There is a scene in which one son is at the driving range with his dad, talking about the unkind things friends sometimes say when you are a sperm donor kid, and the father shares the unkind things that friends sometimes say when you are a man who cannot father a biological child. The love expressed by this father is unconditional and profound. The underlying message, so far, in this episodic drama, is that nurture trumps nature—but nature matters, in ways that are still to be fully defined.
Can a Penis-Shaped Church Really Be an Accident?
"Sometimes,” wrote Charles Lindbergh in his 1953 flight memoir, The Spirit of St. Louis, “the world from above seems too beautiful, too wonderful, too distant for human eyes to see.”
And sometimes, it looks like a bunch of genitals. The Telegraph reported Thursday on a group of homeowners in the U.K. who feared their house prices might falter after Google Earth images revealed that their neighborhood resembles a huge penis from above. Yes, the residents of George Road, Edward Road, and Yeoman Cottages in Hoylake, Wirral live on a cul-de-sac of balls. “We have all become a laughing stock,” said one man. (Untrue! Also: What do you call the masonry used to construct a George Road property? A: Cock blocks!)
Days before Wirral, there was the media burlesque over designs for Qatar’s proposed $140 billion dollar football stadium—an open-lipped, pink-and-violet affair that evoked “a giant, flowering vagina.” And before that, there was the top of this Christian Science church in Dixon, Illinois (motto: Rising Up), which looks like a wang. (At least church officials seem to be having fun with their 15 seconds of fame: A post to the church’s Facebook page reads, “Giant fig leaf coming soon.”)
Autonomous Car Legislation Backs Google’s Vision of the Future Over Ford’s … for Now
In his recent New Yorker piece, “Auto Correct,” Burkhard Bilger provides an outline of the technological history that has brought us to the precipice of autonomous cars: promises of self-driving cars by 1960 during the 1939 World’s Fair; automated highway research; and DARPA-funded unmanned off-road races. When he reviews the current state of autonomous vehicles, Bilger basically describes two camps of developers. In one are Google engineers who believe that “The Wright Brothers era is over. … [W]e’re trying to make [Google Car] as robust and reliable as a 747.” In the other are many engineers from auto manufacturers like Ford who say things like “We don’t even include it [self-driving] in our vocabulary. … Our view of the future is that the driver remains in control of the vehicle.”
But state legislators are starting to join camps, too, and they are moving toward Google’s. Since the beginning of 2012, 17 states (and the District of Columbia) have considered legislation addressing autonomous vehicles. Nevada, California, Florida and D.C. have enacted laws. The mere fact that states are debating these bills now suggests that Google’s view is winning: Autonomous cars sooner rather than later.
Tech Companies Help Make NSA Surveillance Possible—and They Can Help Stop It, Too
When Google chairman Eric Schmidt complained recently about the tapping of the company's internal network traffic by U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies, he certainly had a point. America's National Security Agency and Britain's Government Communications Headquarters were clearly abusing their powers. But Schmidt's complaints had a hollow ring, because Google's own policies have left it—and its users—too open to abuse.
Unless Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and the rest of the Internet "cloud" providers stop using our data for their own commercial purposes, and start offering users a way to keep it truly private, we have to assume our information has been compromised. Unless they create a supplemental business model that allows us to pay directly for services in return for genuine security, they are making clear that their commercial priorities trump our privacy.
That's one reason why you should be highly skeptical of piece from the New America Foundation’s Weekly Wonk that's gaining some traction. The author, Marvin Ammori, argues that the technology industry is getting unfair criticism for its part in government surveillance. (Disclosure: Ammori is a Future Tense fellow at the New America Foundation; Schmidt is the chairman of the NAF board; I’m a professor at Arizona State University; and Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and ASU. Life is complicated.) Ammori approvingly cites Schmidt's remarks and condemns the “vilification of the tech companies.” (One reason you might be skeptical is that Ammori is "an attorney advising companies including Google and Dropbox on surveillance matters," as the tagline notes.)
Hayden Sees No End In Sight for the NSA
When will the NSA’s powers be restrained? According to the agency’s former director Michael Hayden, not any time in the near future.
Hayden, who spoke on Thursday at a cybersecurity forum hosted by the National Military Family Association, is famously expansive on national security concerns—and sanguine about the NSA’s effectiveness. In an exchange regarding the agency’s “systemic overcollection” of data, Hayden argued that those outraged by the practice probably misunderstand it and likely overestimate the extent of the agency’s transgressions. He also noted that he finds “curious” debates over the transparency of FISA courts, which hold secretive proceedings to evaluate government requests for surveillance. Critics have dismissed the courts as “rubber stamps” for the government, noting that they approve virtually all applications. But the courts dispute the label, defending the approval record by saying that they often require changes before giving the government the OK. Hayden says there’s another reason to like the present system.
“What’s odd about the FISA court?” Hayden asked. “We have it. No other Western democracy puts these questions in front of a court.”
Google Is Amused by Microsoft's Anti-Google T-Shirts
This week, Microsoft unveiled a full line of anti-Google paraphernalia, including T-shirts, ballcaps, and coffee mugs with insignia such as "Scroogled" and "Keep calm while we steal your data." Pointed, yes. Subtle, not so much.
What we've found is that this Scroogled campaign has struck a chord with consumers. They really are concerned with the way Google treats them and their privacy. Hundreds of thousansd of people have signed a petition, and millions have visited the website. The T-shirts and the mugs are just a way for people to express their concerns with Google in a different way, but sort of a fun way.
I also asked Google for comment, and today the company's press people replied by email with a brief barb that suggests they're rather enjoying this:
Microsoft's latest venture comes as no surprise; competition in the wearables space is really heating up.
I compared Microsoft's scramble for the moral high ground to a beaten sports team claiming a "moral victory." To stick with the sports analogies, Google's statement strikes me as the equivalent of responding to a rival's taunt by smirking and pointing at the scoreboard. In the wearable-technology category, that scoreboard right now reads Google 1, Microsoft 0.
Of course, the game isn't over just yet. Popcorn, anyone?
The Marines Are Building Headless, Robotic Pack Mules. Here's a Better Idea.
The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has a fun riff on the U.S. military’s Legged Squad Support System, a headless robotic pack horse that can “carry 400 pounds of a squad’s load, follow squad members through rugged terrain, and interact with troops in a natural way, similar to a trained animal and its handler.” Madrigal’s take:
Its headless form has always disturbed me in its ... headlessness. (Like, did Haruki Murakami design these things in a fever dream? Robots galloping across the plains.)
I like the Murakami analogy. No doubt these things are creepy. I mean, watch this and tell me you're not at least a little freaked out:
On the other hand, Boston Dynamics apparently took 30 months and $32 million to build this thing. I wonder what DARPA and the Marines would say if I told them that I personally could procure for them an autonomous legged support system that is just as strong, more maneuverable, requires less maintenance, and runs on much cheaper fuel—all for less than one-ten-thousandth of the price?
Now, if I could just think of a cool, futuristic-sounding name for this technology so I could get some buzz from the tech blogs …
Previous coverage of DARPA robots in Slate: