MySpace for Your Genome

Jesse Reynolds of the excellent Center for Genetics and Society had a good article last week on AlterNet about the risks of putting your genome data online, something the Google- and Genetech-funded startup 23andMe wants you to do.  An excerpt:

Eminent technology investor and pundit Esther Dyson isn’t worried
about privacy policies, her personal records being hacked, or these
companies cooperating with the National Security Agency. In fact, she
wants you to turn over not just your medical records, but your personal
genetic sequence as well.

In a recent interview
on Charlie Rose, Dyson explained that she’s among ten people about to
put their health histories and genetic sequences on the internet for
public viewing. She optimistically predicts that lots of us will soon
entrust such information to online companies, albeit in private

Although Dyson acknowledged some of the troubling
questions this prospect raises, she quickly dismissed them: "Like it or
not, it’s gonna happen."

Her rhetorical dodge is unfortunate. The convergence of biotechnology, the web, and big business is, in fact, quite alarming.

the scenario: After signing up online, you receive a kit in the mail.
In your home, you provide a saliva sample in the supplied cup and ship
it off to a lab. For a few hundred dollars, much of your genome is
sequenced, and the company places it on a website. It’s then linked to
your complete medical history, also online.

At this point, the
company says, you can learn about your predispositions to diseases,
conditions for which you carry a recessive gene, and genealogical
information. The website offers medical advice, along with
advertisements for potentially useful products and services. You can
even communicate with people with similar genetic characteristics,
making "friends" and forming "groups."

That seems to be the plan of a Silicon Valley start-up, 23andMe,
named for the 23 pairs of chromosomes that hold your genome. Google,
Genentech, and venture capital firms have invested at least $10 million
in 23andMe. Its founder recently married one of Google’s founders. Ms.
Dyson is also an investor and board member — something that didn’t come up during her interview.

Link: Google wants to track your medical history — and your genome

ACLU’s New Surveillance Society Clock

This may be old news, but the ACLU recently launched a Surveillance Society Clock "to symbolize just how close we are to a ‘midnight’ of a genuine surveillance society."

It doesn’t quite trip off the tongue like Doomsday Clock, and I’m not sure a digital display is an effective visualization, but anyway… it’s an important issue.

Link: ACLU Surveillance Society Clock,
via Michael Zimmer.

Book Notes

I recently read Tarleton Gillespie’s Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture.  It’s a remarkably comprehensive study of issues surrounding digital copyright.  He gets beyond the simplistic rhetoric heard from both sides to look at the broader story in historical, political, and social terms.  On digital rights management (DRM), in particular, he discusses how the strategy has moved beyond legal or public relations campaigns to a "turn to technology."  Enforcing a technological solution, by building the restrictions right into devices, is dangerous not only because it subverts tenets of copyright law like "fair use," but because it sets a dangerous precedent by hiding choice away from users.  There are also chapters on the Strategic Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), encryption in DVDs, and the FCC’s "broadcast flag."  Tarleton Gillespie has a blog here.

The Best of Technology Writing 2007 is edited by Steven Levy and looks to be a great collection.  Several of the articles, such as a couple by Kevin Kelly and Jaron Lanier, will be familiar to anyone who paid much attention to tech media or blogs last year, but there are a number of lesser-known articles as well.

Aubrey de Grey has written a book, Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime.  After reading the material for Technology Review’s SENS Challenge last year I think I’ve had my fill of Aubrey de Grey’s prose for one lifetime (finite or not), so I think I’ll pass.  Here is a review by Paul Boutin in the Wall Street Journal: Battling Time’s Ravages.Endingaging_2

Return of the Doomsday Machine?

There’s an good article by Ron Rosenbaum in Slate (published August 31) about whether the Soviets really built a "doomsday machine" and if so, what ever happened to it?  Excerpt:

In Strangelove, the doomsday machine was a Soviet system that
automatically detonated some 50 cobalt-jacketed hydrogen bombs
pre-positioned around the planet if the doomsday system’s sensors
detected a nuclear attack on Russian soil. Thus, even an accidental or
(as in Strangelove) an unauthorized U.S. nuclear bomb could
set off the doomsday machine bombs, releasing enough deadly cobalt
fallout to make the Earth uninhabitable for the human species for 93
years. No human hand could stop the fully automated apocalypse.

An extreme fantasy, yes. But according to a new book called Doomsday Men and
several papers on the subject by U.S. analysts, it may not have been
merely a fantasy. According to these accounts, the Soviets built and
activated a variation of a doomsday machine in the mid-’80s. And there
is no evidence Putin’s Russia has deactivated the system.

Instead, something was reactivated in Russia last week. I’m referring to the ominous announcement—given insufficient attention by most U.S. media (the Economist
made it the opening of a lead editorial on Putin’s Russia)—by Vladimir
Putin that Russia has resumed regular "strategic flights" of nuclear
bombers. (They may or may not be carrying nuclear bombs, but you can
practically hear Putin’s smirking tone as he says, "Our [nuclear
bomber] pilots have been grounded for too long. They are happy to start
a new life.")

These twin developments raise a troubling question: What are the United
States’ and Russia’s current nuclear policies with regard to how and
when they will respond to a perceived nuclear attack?

Link: Return of the doomsday machine?

The article is partially a review of Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon, by Peter D. Smith, who has a blog here. His book will be out in the US in December and looks like a very interesting read.

Singularity coverage (elsewhere)

I apologize to anyone who was paying attention when I wrote earlier that I’d attend and report on the Singularity Summit that took place this past weekend.  I wasn’t able to make it.  Here’s an article from Friday’s SF Chronicle on the event: Public meeting will re-examine future of artificial intelligence, and of course the summit site itself will have links to coverage.