Tech shorts for July 28, 2015: Misuse of 23andMe's DNA database, delete emails after you send them, and online ad networks take more liberties
23andMe's DNA data used to restrict site access based on ancestry
If you signed up for genetic analysis by the 23andMe service and allowed your DNA data to be added to the service's public database, you may be in for a surprise. Fast Company's Pavithra Mohan reports in a July 23, 2015, article that a program called Genetic Access Control uses the 23andMe open API to allow web sites to identify and block visitors based on their "race, sex, and ancestry."
The program was posted briefly on GitHub, but 23andMe quickly blocked the app's access to its DNA database. The company claims only three people used the program before it was blocked. 23andMe's API policy prohibits any use that creates "hate materials or materials urging acts of terrorism or violence."
The good news is that 23andMe discovered and addressed the misuse promptly. The company's policy is to restrict access to the data while apps using it are being developed, and then approving full access only after the program has been reviewed by its staff.
The bad news is that our genetic information is more likely to be collected and shared in the future whether we consent to it or even know about it.
The bottom line is that 23andMe's customers must opt into making their DNA data part of the public database. The potential benefits of a DNA database are tremendous, but so are the risks to privacy. Until we can be assured our most personal of data is safe from misuse by third parties, it's a good idea to prevent it from being shared -- at least to the extent that we're able to control ourselves.
Now you can delete emails after you send them
Email regret can be a terrible thing. There are ways to delay the emails you send to give yourself a chance to recall them before they're delivered, as I described for Outlook in a CNET post from 2008. There are also products that offer to review your messages before you send them to spot potential incendiary comments; the old Eudora program used one, two, or three hot-pepper icons to indicate the mail's emotional tone.
A new product called Dmail claims to let you delete a Gmail message after you've sent it, and ultimately to prevent an email from being forwarded. TechCrunch's Sarah Perez describes the product in a July 23, 2015, article. Dmail is being developed by the same people who created the Delicious social-bookmarking service.
The product differs from Gmail's own delayed-delivery option, which displays an "Undo Send" button for up to 30 seconds after you hit the Send button. By contrast, Dmail claims to allow any sent message to be deleted at any time. It works as an extension for Google's Chrome browser and adds a new option to the Gmail compose window. You can specify that you want the message deleted after an hour, a day, a week, or "never." Even if you chose the "never" option you can still access via your sent-messages folder and select the "Revoke Email" button.
Message recipients who don't have the Dmail extension installed are prompted to click a link to view the "secure message" on a web page. If the recipient has the extension, the message is displayed in Gmail. Once the message has been revoked, these recipients will be told "the message has been destroyed and is no longer available" whenever they attempt to access it.
The program's developers intend to add the ability to control access to PDFs and other files in addition to email. The current version of the product is available for free on the Google Chrome store.
Online advertisers continue to be their own worst enemies
One of the Shorts from July 14, 2015, explained how a Canadian university reduced its total network bandwidth needs by 40 percent simply by blocking ads. These days, we're more likely to be viewing web content on our mobile devices, which often are subject to data-transfer caps. If your mobile plan limits you to 100MB of data traffic each month, for example, you could avoid extra charges simply by installing an ad-blocking extension on your phone or tablet.
Saving bandwidth charges is only one of the benefits of blocking ads. Abderrezak Kamel, chief technology officer at the tech news site Technorati, writes in a July 22, 2015, guest post on the AdExchanger site that online ad networks are abusing their access to the personal information they collect through our browsers. Kamel asserts that advertisers are capitalizing on the data without compensating publishers, and also degrading the user experience by adding so much overhead via their sophisticated and abundant data-collecting pixels.
Kamel calls for creation of a user-ID standard that browser makers could implement to manage the ad networks' data-collection activities. The standards would be enforced by "a governing body that everybody trusts," according to Kamel.
As commenters to the article point out, the main problem with such a standard is that the parties charged with implementing and enforcing it are the same parties that have profited so much from the current online-ad system: Google makes Chrome, Microsoft makes Internet Explorer, Apple makes Safari, and Mozilla sells ads on its home page.
The only way to rein in the out-of-control online ad networks is by promoting the use of ad-blocking browser extensions such as AdBlock Plus as a way to coerce the advertisers into respecting publishers and web users alike.