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23andMe Cuts Off the DNA App Ecosystem It Created

Amy Mitchell started getting sick in 2012. Dizzy spells and fatigue became a part of her daily life, followed by numbness in her limbs and painful muscle spasms. After half a dozen doctors over two years couldn’t tell her what was wrong, she sent away for a 23andMe kit. At the time, the consumer DNA-testing company was only giving ancestry reports—the Federal Drug Administration had recently shut down 23andMe’s health information ambitions. But a new doctor had recommended that Mitchell send in her spit anyway, and link her genetic profile to a third-party app that would analyze her DNA for clues.

It wasn’t an FDA-approved test or a genetic panel that her insurance would cover. The app interpreted variations in her MTHFR gene, which were once thought to be linked to hundreds of conditions, before being mostly discarded by mainstream science. But Mitchell was desperate. The $100 she paid for the kit plus $50 for the app seemed a reasonable price under the circumstances. She brought the results to her first appointment with the new doctor and after taking a look, he suggested she switch up her supplements and stop eating gluten. Within days her headaches and dizziness went away, and her energy rebounded. It wasn’t a miracle cure; the 37-year-old Mitchell still has pain and numbness and trouble clearing infections from her body. But she credits the app, and half a dozen others she’s used over the years, with leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for her to follow. And now, she’s worried other people like her won’t have the same opportunity.

This week, 23andMe shut down external apps’ access to its anonymized genomic data through its application programming interface. 23andMe was the first DNA testing company to open an API, back in 2012, and the idea at the time was to “allow authorized developers to build a broad range of new applications and tools for the 23andMe community.”

But a lot has changed since then, pushing the company to rethink how its genetic, behavioral, and health data gets used. For one thing, pharmaceutical giants are now willing to pay 23andMe hundreds of millions of dollars for exclusive access to its stockpile of data, to help with drug discovery.

Meanwhile, the dangers of loose data practices forced their way into the public consciousness earlier this year when it was exposed that a third-party app harvested, and then sold, the personal Facebook data of up to 87 million Americans. At-home genetic testing companies have themselves been cast into a maelstrom of privacy concerns, with the news that detectives cracked the case of the Golden State Killer using genetic profiles uploaded to a publicly available genealogy website.

Beyond privacy considerations, 23andMe is also concerned about the prevalence of diet and fitness apps of dubious scientific merit. “While we have had some great API partners, there are others that do not meet our scientific standards and lack rigorous privacy policies,” a 23andMe spokesperson wrote in an email to WIRED. Going forward, app developers will only be able to access data from the reports 23andMe generates for customers, such as ancestry composition or risk probabilities for genetic diseases like Parkinson’s. In the coming weeks, 23andMe plans to publish new criteria for developers, outlining what sorts of privacy measures and scientific validation are required for future participation. Notably, all apps must return results consistent with what 23andMe itself claims, limiting those apps’ utility.

The company says qualified researchers will still have access to raw genetic data, provided that customers have consented to share their information through the API. And customers will still have the option to download all their data and manually share it with outside apps or services, an action that has its own security risks (computers can get lost, stolen, hacked). 23andMe declined to say how many apps are currently connected to the API, or how many will be disabled by the change.

“We have seen customers choose to share their data with a wide variety of 23andMe’s API partners—and found that some of these partners lacked strict privacy policies—making the risks and potential for nefarious activity increase significantly,” 23andMe global privacy officer Kate Black told WIRED in an interview last week. “In this case, putting that data firmly in the hands of customers to mediate and control is a more responsible approach.”

APIs themselves are not a risky technology; secure transfer protocols are the reason billions of people can safely use credit card information to buy things on the internet everyday. But the ease with which APIs make the automated transfer happen can mask the risks of giving snippets, or even whole copies, of your genetic code to third parties. In 2015, one coder even used the 23andMe API to block people from certain websites based on their race and sex.

“That raw genetic data might be anonymous, but third parties with access to other databases can easily cross-reference them to reidentify individuals,” says Simon Lin, chief research information officer for Nationwide Children’s Hospital and a professor of pediatrics and bioinformatics at The Ohio State University. He studies how clinical and consumer genetic information might be securely integrated into electronic health records systems. “A 23andMe report inherently carries much less risk than the raw genetic file because it’s just much less information. It’s hard to reidentify someone from just knowing their ancestry is Finnish.”

As soon as genetic data is transferred to a third-party app, it becomes subject to that developer’s privacy policies. Which means it’s on customers to read all the fine print to get a sense of how their data might be used. Since releasing its API, 23andMe has warned customers of this fact, but ultimately left the choice in their hands. Now, in a sense, the company is walling off its rapidly growing genetic garden.

Lin says the move is indicative of personal genomics’ increasing maturity. When 23andMe launched, there wasn’t a lot of standardization in the field; the same genetic data points might be interpreted differently by different algorithms. Now there’s a lot more consensus on what evidence constitutes a valid scientific claim. The small startup was also amassing too much information for it to interpret alone. By releasing the first genetics-based API, 23andMe kicked off an ecosystem of services that could each bite off a little piece of the genome. The more customers could do with their data, the more likely they were to send in their spit to 23andMe. “At that moment it truly was a pioneer, and the API served its purpose,” says Lin. Now those motivations are less compelling to the company.

23andMe has always billed itself as empowering people with their own health data. But as the field—and privacy concerns—have evolved, what that means in practice is changing too. Still, Amy Mitchell worries that something has been lost in the process. “I’m lucky that I already got to use all these apps to look deeply into my genetic data,” she says. “But what about everyone else who hasn’t?” Time perhaps to invest in some cloud storage, or a few good hard drives.


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UPS to Keep Older Freighters in the Air with New Avionics

The giant U.S.-based parcels delivery company, United Parcel Service (UPS) started business back in 1907 in Seattle and was at that time named American Messenger Company. Since then there
has been no looking back. Today UPS is one of the world’s largest parcels and freight delivery companies and since 1975 has been operating U.S. domestic and international freight flights with
their daughter company, UPS Airlines. Now they decided to extend the lifespan of their Boeing 757Fs, 767Fs and Airbus A300Fs by installing upgraded cockpit systems.

An impressive fleet of aircraft
It’s not just UPS’s vast fleet of brown and golden trucks which constantly make the headlines. UPS Airlines which started international services with flights between the USA and Canada, today
operates across the globe with a fleet of almost 250 freighter aircraft and works out of various hubs in the USA, Europe and Asia.
Of those 250 or so aircraft, around 190 are what one would today term as “aging models.” The carrier which also operates more modern B747-400 and B747-8 freighters still uses smaller medium range
freighters such as the B757-200PF, of which they have 75 in their fleet. On top of this there are another 59 B767-300ERF freighters mainly operating on domestic and South American routes. The
carrier’s fleet of Airbus A300-600RF totals 52 units, are still needed for domestic services and will also receive new avionics.
UPS recently placed an order with Boeing for a further eighteen B747-8Fs. This order ensures that the 747F production line stays open for some time to come.

Cockpit updates for 757Fs and 767Fs
Whereas some other parcels operators are ordering newer converted B757 or B767 aircraft, UPS has decided to extend the operating life of their aircraft by installing new cockpit systems for their
Boeing 757 and 767 fleet and the Airbus A300Fs.
The B757 upgrades concentrate on the installation of three large-format LCD displays to replace the out-of-date cathode ray tube screens. Engine indication, crew alerting systems and other older
flight instruments will be replaced by modern ones. Both the 757 and 767 avionics systems will be supplied by Rockwell Collins and cockpit certification which has already started is being carried
out by VT Mobile Aerospace Engineering, a Mobile, Alabama-based MRO specialist. The complete overhaul is expected to be finished by 2020.
The UPS Airbus A300 fleet will also get a heavy cockpit overhaul with new integrated avionics, main computers flight management systems and much more. Airbus itself will perform certification and
the modifications will be carried out also by them. Work is expected to start in 2020.
The new modifications will then allow UPS Airlines to continue operating their A300Fs, 757Fs and 767Fs up until at least 2035.

Good second quarter results
United Parcel Service group revenues for Q2 of this year rose by 9.6% to US$17.5 billion. The increased revenues were mainly attributed to the international supply chain and freight division, who
UPS state saw double-digit growth in Q2.
International revenues went up by 14% to US$3.6 billion and adjusted operating profit in this sector increased by 15% to US$654 million. Supply chain and freight revenues went up by 165 to US$3.5
billion and an operating profit of US$247 million.

John Mc Donagh

New Hyundai Container Service Serves Hamburg

 The Korean container shipping company Hyundai Merchant Marine (HMM) has started a new, independent Asia-North Europe service in April. 

The first vessel of the AEX service to call at Eurogate Container Terminal Hamburg on 12 May was ‘Hyundai Forward’ with a capacity of the 4,700 TEU. 

A total of ten units of these comparatively small Panamax container ships will rotate weekly between Busan (Korea), Shanghai (China), Ningbo (China), Kaohsiung (China), Yantian (China), Singapore, Colombo (Sri Lanka), Rotterdam (Netherlands), Hamburg (Germany), Southampton (UK), Singapore, Hong Kong (China) and Busan.

The AEX service is an express service. The transit time from Busan to Hamburg is 32 days and from Shanghai to Hamburg 30 days. 

According to the shipping company, this is about two to five days faster than other Asia-Northern Europe services. AEX complements the six existing Asia-North Europe services offered by HMM via slot charter agreements within the 2M+HMM alliance

Port of Amsterdam Introduces Bin2Barrel

 In the port of Amsterdam the construction has started of a new facility that will convert non-recyclable plastic into fuel for the transport sector, which will cut down CO₂ emission by 57,000 tonnes per year. 

It is the first project of Bin2Barrel, a Dutch company focusing on the development of Plastic-to projects. This is how synthetic materials that could not be reused otherwise will now become reusable in a useful application, while at the same time offering a more sustainable alternative for traditional transport fuels. 

The ultimate goal is application of the produced substances in the production of new synthetic materials, in other words chemical recycling. This brings the mission of Bin2Barrel fully in line with the targets of the Dutch government, who recently added chemical recycling to its national waste management plan. The plant will be built in collaboration with Port of Amsterdam and is expected to be up and running by the end of this year.

The first plant of Bin2Barrel, accomplished with an investment of approx. €28m, will produce more than 30m litres of fuel per year out of 35,000 tonnes of non-recyclable plastic. 

This is the first time ever that commercial use is made of a proven technology, partly thanks to a government grant for energy innovation (DEI). The flow of non-recyclable plastic comes from Dutch waste collectors and processors, who would otherwise just burn waste for lack of any other applications. In combustion of the produced fuel, the return on energy is nearly three times higher (80%) than in direct burning of plastic in waste incinerators (33%). 

Although, potentially, the fuel is also suitable for other sectors, Bin2Barrel focuses first on selling it to the marine industry. 

Roon van Maanen, Head of Circular & Renewable Industry at Port of Amsterdam, is pleased with the collaboration with Bin2Barrel: “The use of plastic and the lack of a proper processing of plastic cause massive pollution worldwide. Bin2Barrel introduces innovative and badly needed technology that will enable us to make use of a currently non-recyclable flow of waste in a manner that makes perfect sense. By creating a new product from an otherwise problematic waste product, Bin2Barrel fits perfectly within the mission of Port of Amsterdam to facilitate energy transition as well as transition to a circular economy.”